Rounders

Rounders-1998In the generic-sounding Rounders, Matt Damon sits at tables all over Manhattan, taking the measure of the suckers who play cards with him. They’re like lambs to the slaughter; Damon can read the tiniest gesture or shift in expression and guess what they’re holding. You’d think that in such an insular circle of players — everyone seems to know each other — Damon would either have been banned from playing or gotten whacked a long time ago. Rounders has a lot of surface detail; the screenwriters, David Levien and Brian Koppelman, are both experienced poker players, and it shows. They’re also rookie screenwriters, and that shows, too.

Damon’s Mike McDermott, a law student, has given up cardsharking because he lost big to the heavyweight Russian mobster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich in his best, funniest performance in years). We know it won’t be long before Mike gets pulled back in, especially since he has a girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) whose function is to pout in disapproval and issue ultimatums if he so much as looks at a deck of cards. When Mike’s ex-convict buddy Worm (Edward Norton) enters the picture, bringing money problems and temptation with him, we bid a relieved farewell to the dreary girlfriend and look forward to some serious card wizardry.

We get it, but not as cleverly as we might expect, given the director, John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), a modest master of film-noir double-crossing. With Mike narrating and the scene set for a gritty fable of two losers trying to make the big score (to pay off a thug breathing down Worm’s neck), we sit back hoping for a bleak, bitter, and complex story of deception and manipulation. But the script only has one idea, that Mike will persevere by playing “straight-up” (i.e., no “mechanics” or scam moves), bail out his friend, and regain his dignity. Where’s the fun in that?

For long stretches, Rounders gets a shot in the arm from Damon and Norton; whenever they have a scene together, you give the movie permission to leave the lame plot behind and follow them wherever they go. Damon, who can play fundamental decency without overselling it, and Norton, who’s visibly tickled to play a sleazeball, get an electric rhythm going. Then, amazingly, the movie drops Worm altogether and focuses on Mike, who must stand alone, like a gunslinger in a Western — facing off against the fearsome Teddy KGB. This is tired, tired stuff.

The movie doesn’t even get very deeply into Mike’s supposed genius at reading people, which, from what we see, is just hearsay. We see him telling people what they have in their hands, but we miss out on how he can tell. And what the hell is Mike narrating for, if not to let us in on it? Sure, there’s a scene in Atlantic City where Mike invites us to laugh at clueless tourists who give themselves away with airhorn-obvious signals. But wasn’t this covered in Casino? As for Teddy KGB’s “tell,” if you don’t spot it before Mike does, you’re a sucker.

A director like David Mamet, in The Spanish Prisoner or House of Games, never lets the rubes — the audience — get ahead of him. Ordinarily John Dahl doesn’t either. But he’s stuck with a script by two guys who might know how to outsmart suckers at the table, but they have a lot to learn about pulling the wool over our eyes. We know exactly where Rounders is going. There are no reversals or betrayals, no hidden agenda, nothing you’d expect from this director working with this material in this setting. The movie’s only surprise is that it’s so on-the-level.

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