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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Rounders

Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton
Director: John Dahl
Rated: R
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Famke Janssen, Martin Landau, John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol, John Turturro, Melina Kanakaredes

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

Back in 1998, I had thought that maybe Matt Damon was getting to a point where he was just repeating himself - the same path that early Tom Cruise went before proving what a fine, charismatic actor he really was. "The Talented Mr. Ripley" has proven to be a major exception. In "Rounders," Damon combines his "Good Will Hunting's" lead genius character with a cross of the lawyer theatrics in "The Rainmaker." In other words, you got it, Damon is playing a genius poker player (not a mathematician but close) who happens to be a law student. Okay, that's not a fair criticism to make. The question is: is the movie any good? Yes, but Damon is too good to be true in his first lead role since "Good Will Hunting."

"Rounders" stars Damon as Mike McDermott, a clean-cut, high-stakes poker gambler, who calls it quits after losing $30,000 to a Russian gangster named Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). Mike chooses to stick to his law books and cavort with his live-in girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol). No sooner can you predict that he'll revert to his gambling instincts when his troubled best friend, Worm (Edward Norton), is released from prison and goes back to gambling with Russians and other card players. Unsurprisingly, Worm brings the juice back into Mike's soul to gamble - Mike resists but can't help it and lies to Jo about his habit. The trouble is that Worm owes money to Teddy KGB and Mike vouches for Worm's activities - ouch! We're talking the noirish landscape of "Mean Streets," without the grit.

Most of "Rounders" is conventionally told, but the difference is in the amount of attention paid to the details of poker playing. Director John Dahl and writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman render all the little secrets and nuances that all poker players adhere to. Since the film is narrated by Mike, we listen and watch how he studies players, and how he determines an opponent's cards because of the "tell." In other words, the opponent is telling the player what cards they are holding through gestures and specific tics. Teddy KGB's tell is the way he fondles an Oreo cookie. If he splits the cookie in front of his face, he's cheating. If he splits it by his ear, he's ahead and may be the winner.

Several scenes are structured around such moments. For example, there's an early scene where Mike enters a room where a judge and his cohorts are playing poker, and he pinpoints each hand the player is holding. It's an absorbing "movie" scene but unbelievable in context - how the hell can you tell what cards the players are holding if you just walked in out of nowhere but, then again, what do I know about poker? The movie's best, tense sequence is when Mike and Worm are roughed up by some cops after trying to swindle them - the scene has a noir element since it shows their desperation at trying to win money so they can pay back the gangsters.

The problem with "Rounders" is that it is too soft around the edges. It wants be a noirish Mamet-like parable about gambling and it has the right atmosphere for it, but the wrong attitude. Matt Damon is too squeaky clean and youthful to be a professional gambler - he's like the Superboy of poker. He wins at every hand he plays, but the main thrust of the story should be how you can lose everything, even your life, when the gambling becomes an addiction. The irony of its conclusion is that it resorts to a "Rocky" climax, and then it tells you that gambling is the only solution to life's problems. You can't escape who you are or what you are.

"Rounders" does benefit from colorful supporting performances. I loved Martin Landau's sad-eyed Judge Petrovsky whose sole advice to Mike is that destiny chooses who we are - a platitude that is not applicable to Mike's situation. John Turturro is quite restrained, for a change, as Joey Knish, a gambler who doesn't take risks and plays just to make a living. John Malkovich is especially good as the thick-Russian-accented Teddy KGB who loves to fondle Oreo cookies. Also worth noting is the undernourished role of Jo, fetchingly played by Gretchen Mol, and she is the only reasonable person in the entire movie!

Accolades must go to Edward Norton playing the weasel-like loser, appropriately named Worm, who takes far too many risks. It also seems as if he's not much of a poker player since Mike comes to his aid and plays at very club and function to win the money they owe. Norton brings an authenticity to the role - he appears as a real-life character with flaws.

"Rounders" is generally well-acted, well-directed and well-shot. The movie is full of whispers, jazz music, smoky corridors, and pious platitudes about gambling and poker courtesy of Mike's voice-overs. Still, the movie takes the easy way out, and lets Mike off the hook. Several poker-playing scenes and Mike's grand exit at the end reminded me too much of "Good Will Hunting." It would been a more winning hand if the film was only about Worm.

Copyright 1998 Jerry Saravia

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