Rounder: 1. A dissolute or rakish person, according to Webster's
Dictionary. 2. A hustler, according to World Champion poker player Johnny
_Rounders_: John Dahl's engrossing drama, a never-less-than fascinating
cinematic window peeking into the world of high-stakes poker lurking in New
David Levien and Brian Koppelman's central story does a more than
adequate, if mechanical, job of taking the audience into its seedy milieu.
After losing a hard-won $31,000 in a single game, expert card player and
law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) swears off poker at the behest of
his classmate and live-in girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol). But, to paraphrase
_The_Godfather_Part_III_, just when Mike thought he was out, Worm pulls him
back in--Worm being Mike's old friend (Edward Norton), who, soon after his
release from prison, lures Mike back into being a "rounder."
I had two key quibbles with Levien and Koppelman's script, one being the
contrived dynamics of Mike-Worm relationship. Worm is clearly no good,
getting Mike into all sorts of trouble, yet Mike continues to stand by and
cover for him. Perhaps Mike is simply loyal to his friends, but if Mike
truly is as smart as he's made out to be, he would see Worm for the
complete loser that he is. Nonetheless, Damon and Norton's strong rapport
make it somewhat easier to believe. No such rapport is present to solve my
second problem, which is the unnecessary love story between Mike and Jo,
vapidly played by current Hollywood "It Girl" Mol. There is not one scene
that establishes their relationship prior to the inevitable strain cause by
his return to poker. Their first scene together has her asleep in bed
while he heads out, and not too long after that she's arguing with him
about his poker outings. How is it possible to have an emotional
investment in their romance?
What makes a ticket to _Rounders_ a wise monetary investment for
moviegoers is its fascinating look at the underground poker world. While
they falter in the aforementioned dramatic areas, Levien and Koppelman make
up for it with their attention to detail. They have an acute understanding
of the game and this world, making extensive use of insider vernacular,
which lends the film an air of authenticity. In fact, so heavy is its use
that the press notes include a nearly four-page glossary of poker terms.
This is not to say, however, that those without press notes will be
scratching their heads. The writers' great accomplishment is making the
language accessible to poker neophytes, who will be able to easily
understand the insider dialogue through context. A big help is Mike's
efficient voiceover narration, which delivers crucial exposition on the
game of poker quickly and clearly.
The card game subject matter may seem to be a bit of a stretch for
director Dahl, who has made his name with neo-noirs (_Red_Rock_West_ ,
_The_Last_Seduction_). But his noir-bred gift for creating an atmosphere
of mystery and suspense makes for some tense and exciting poker matches.
The air of mystery also comes through in a few memorable characters, such
as Joey Knish (John Turturro), a seasoned poker player who sometimes
advises Mike; Petra (Famke Janssen), the sultry head of the Chesterfields
poker club; and, most notably, Russian poker master Teddy KGB (an
effectively hammy John Malkovich), to whom Mike loses his $31,000 in the
After watching large sums of money being won and (mostly) lost in
_Rounders_, it is doubtful that any moviegoer will be eager to gain entry
into some high-stakes card games; as Mike says in the film, poker is not a
game of luck, but of skill. Similarly, neither is filmmaking, and it is
the filmmakers' skill that makes _Rounders_ a worthwhile entertainment.