Unexciting "Runner Runner" Wastes Premise, Cast

Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake – the stars of “Runner Runner” – have seen similarly bumpy career trajectories, beginning with early success in the late 90s. Timberlake became an overnight superstar as part of N*SYNC, while Affleck won an Oscar for his “Good Will Hunting” screenplay. But their personal lives would soon become tabloid fodder, neither being taken seriously in the early 2000s. Artistic redemption would follow, however, with Timberlake’s second and third solo albums becoming smash hits – both critically and commercially – and Affleck reinventing himself as a director. His third directorial effort, “Argo,” was awarded Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.

But success is a fickle proposition in Hollywood, let alone long-lasting success. And as talented as Affleck and Timberlake are, no one would suggest that acting is either’s strongest suit. Pairing the two in a thriller might have seemed like a no-brainer, but a thriller should thrill and “Runner Runner” doesn’t. There have been far more incompetent films to reach theaters this year, but “Runner Runner,” in all its exotic locale glory, comes across like a working vacation for its stars, and will leave viewers wondering why it exists at all.

Timberlake, whose recent film career has yet to live up to his memorable turn in “The Social Network,” stars as Richie Furst, a well-groomed but destitute Princeton student who turns to online poker to grow his college tuition money. Just when Richie finds some tables ripe for the taking, his money goes up in smoke, and he suspects he’s been cheated – a suspicion confirmed by some advanced statistical work. The site is called Midnight Black, owned by Ivan Block (Affleck), notorious offshore entrepreneur.

Richie wings his way to Costa Rica to confront an almost immediately contrite Ivan, who acknowledges that some soon to be fired coders had used the site to cheat. Ivan reimburses Richie, proceeding to offer him a job worth seven figures. Without a moment’s hesitation, Richie becomes Ivan’s newest employee

While overly expository, the first act is the film’s most interesting, providing a glimmer of hope as to where the film might go. It’s competently if not dazzlingly directed by Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), and the stars make up in screen presence what they lack in pure acting ability. More importantly, a picture about the collapse of an online poker empire has all the potential in the world, so a respectable set-up doesn’t exactly signal a major problem for what’s to come.

Regrettably, writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien don’t find anywhere interesting to go, leaving viewers with a pedestrian game of cat and mouse between Richie, Ivan, and an overly enthusiastic FBI Agent (Anthony Mackie). The film’s only tension comes in the form of some crocodile infested waters, but it’s a plot device that’s entirely tangential to the narrative. The gorgeous Gemma Arterton co-stars as Rebecca Shafran, Ivan’s assistant and occasional lover, but her character is little more than eye candy – and a love triangle with Richie and Ivan is a nonstarter.

“Runner Runner” is passable rainy day fare, but absolutely nothing more, never putting in the effort to make it worthy of any audience. It has nothing in particular to say, and what it does say, it doesn’t say particularly well. It won’t satisfy anyone looking for action or thrills or, you know, actual card playing, nor will it sate viewers hoping for the substance of “The Social Network” or the flashy fun of “21.” Acting-wise, Affleck fares better than Timberlake – the latter struggles mightily with line delivery – but ultimately it’s work that never stood a chance. The story is so inconsequential that the best performances in the world would hardly make a dent in its snooze-worthy screenplay.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: October 4, 2013
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Brad Furman
Screenwriter: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)