Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is NOW IN THEATERS .
They say that losing hurts like (heck), but getting played is a (bleeping) dagger in the eye. Well, at least Justin Timberlake says it. Sort of. He only says it in his new movie Runner Runner, which means that he was paid to say it, and therefore probably wasn’t really feeling the words even when they came out of his mouth. Besides which, since when has Justin Timberlake ever really got beat or been hustled at anything? Whoa there, pretty boy. I think there’s a water spot on your silver spoon.
You know who got conned? Me. I walked into Runner Runner thinking it would maybe have jack, or at least diddly, to do with computers or technology. I mean I don’t only see movies that have IT in them, but I do have a job to do. And the trailers for Runner Runner make it seem like online poker-playing, which is certainly a tech-involved subject, is of central importance to the film’s story and characters. Yeah, not so much. The movie is about online poker the way that a Britney Spears music video is about the backup dancers.
I don’t know whether I’m feeling quite as stung as if I’d just had my eyeball skewered on someone else’s knifepoint, but let’s just say that if you’ve seen the trailer for Runner Runner, then you’ve already seen almost all of its disky business. You’ve also already seen a good enough chunk of the twists and turns that, should you decide to see the movie anyway, keeping track what’s happening on the screen will only require about two percent of your brain’s cognitive firepower.
Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a young wizard of finance who lost both his Wall Street job and his six-figure bank account at the onset of the Great Recession. Since “young wizard of finance” on a resume will only get you so far, Richie is busting out a quick graduate degree at Princeton before presumably reentering the workforce. College costs money, of course, and Richie has none — remember how they set that up? — so he pays the bills by collecting referral fees for getting his classmates (as well as the occasional errant faculty member) involved in online poker games.
(Scholarships? Student loans? What is this “financial aid” you speak of?)
Complaints arise, and the dean of students will have none of it, so Richie either has to quit his informal “affiliate” job and starve (to say nothing of not paying for school), or take every penny he’s got and turn his business model on its ear by playing poker himself instead of just suggesting it to other people. Let’s just say that, for an erstwhile young wizard of finance, he seems remarkably ignorant of the existence of such radical options as, say, getting a different, less quasi-legal part-time job.
Richie busts out his laptop and narrates his poker savant thought processes to admiring and mildly-reproving roommates as he bangs out an online poker all-nighter. The “tuition or bust” strategy works likes a charm until it doesn’t — which comes a shocker to poor Richie Rich, because no one else in the history of poker has ever won big, then lost it all.
Did you catch that he used a computer and the internet to win/lose all of that money? So much for the movie’s insights into the computerization of gambling. A tech nerd buddy assures Richie that he was cheated — I call this kind of character a “code whisperer.” How does he know what happened? The answer is always some blarney that boils down to, “I looked at the code, and you would not believe what I found there.” Uh-huh. Tell me about it.
Later on, the words “I was freelancing around in the code” actually come out of a different character’s mouth to explain how he inadvertently uncovered a hugely sinister secret. You know, just freelancing around. As your average code whisperer is wont to do.
Eventually, the preponderance of shenanigans gets Richie tangled up with Ivan Black (Ben Affleck), an internet poker kingpin based in Costa Rica who practically farts hundred-dollar bills. Black likes the Princeton kid’s moxie, and Richie bails out of college and swan dives into the world of (ahem) high finance faster than a craps table coming up seven. Of course, you don’t become the devil’s business partner without risking a malware infection to the software of your life. What do you want to bet Richie’s plush new gig has some sinister strings attached?
What I want to bet is that you won’t really be surprised by how any of this turns out. Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien are semi-legendary in gambling circles for the veracity of Rounders, their first film about poker. The only thing that might possibly become legendary about Runner Runner is how quickly it folds at the box office and migrates to the discount DVD bin at Walmart.
CHECK HIS I.D.: Timberlake is 32, but could easily pass for 23 (or younger) — it’s not for nothing that he’s playing a slightly-grizzled college kid here. I’d even buy him as the all-grown-up version of the kid Macaulay Culkin played in Home Alone. Or maybe it’s just that John Heard, who played Culkin’s movie dad, has a small role here as Richie’s seedy, no-account paterfamilias.
KRONK-APPROVED: Screenwriters love that device where the hero completes his victory by taking some spiteful bon mot uttered earlier by the bad guy and throwing it back in his face. We call that, as Yzma once explained to Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove, a “cruel irony.” Runner Runner doubles down on the glib gamesmanship, with (spoiler!) Richie using Ivan’s own words to zing him twice in the final scene. Take that!
WE HAVE TO GET THAT (YOUR STORAGE MEDIA HERE): In the Information Age, movies that have any amount of standard thriller formula in their DNA almost always have a disk/hard drive/CD-ROM/laptop that contains vital information that multiple parties want or need. The current medium of choice is your standard USB flash drive (a.k.a. thumb drive, jump drive, etc.). There are two of those in Runner Runner, each with its own precious cargo. Surprisingly, however, there is not a scene where someone waits anxiously as files are copied from this or that desktop or laptop to a USB-FD. I feel vaguely cheated. Is there a dagger sticking out of my eye?
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