Film Review: Runner Runner

A cautionary tale about the danger of shortcuts and the seductiveness of pretty faces.

The son of a scruffy professional gambler (John Heard), Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) hopes to parlay his hard-won knowledge of odds and tells into a big-money career in legitimate finance. Richie is working his way through Princeton, hoping that an Ivy League degree will erase (or at least offset) the ignominy of having been kicked to the curb when the 2008 financial meltdown torpedoed his promising Wall Street career.
The trouble is that Richie's job involves online gambling, which Princeton's old-guard administration considers little better than whore-mongering, and after losing his own woefully inadequate nest egg in a rigged poker game on the sleek Costa Rica-based Midnight Black website, Richie's back is up against the wall.

If he entertains the slightest hope of getting back on his feet, Richie needs to stop being done to and start doing. So he decides to fly to the source and confront online-gambling mogul Ivan Black (Ben Affleck) with hard-numbers evidence that—with or without Ivan's knowledge—his site is screwing over straight-up, by-the-books users. Next thing you know, Richie is working for Ian and on the road to perdition, baby-step by baby-step.

Runner Runner is at its best in the scenes that pair Ivan and Richie, both the “Hey we're just dudes having fun” ones and those in which each catches a glimpse of something the other would rather keep hidden. Both Affleck and Timberlake have fought uphill battles to be taken seriously as actors, the former because he was just a little too handsome and the latter because, well, who could take a former neo-Mouseketeer turned pop-music cutie dating Britney Spears seriously? Runner Runner gives both room to show what they can do, and rather than pump up the volume, they play it close to the vest, as good gamblers would.

If the end seems more than a little pat, well, that's the way Hollywood rolls these days: Back in the ’70s, at least one of leads—perhaps even femme fatale-with-a-heart of-gold Gemma Arterton—would have wound up in a seething pool of hungry gators. But hey, in the 21st-century, when gambling has moved from smoky, sweaty-palmed backrooms to the antiseptic nowhere of cyberspace, why should there be blood?