"Rounders" offers an interesting look into the world of high-stakes poker,
as well as some very good acting from Matt Damon, Edward Norton and
Martin Landau. Unfortunately, the film lacks a compelling story arc,
credible interpersonal relationships and characters that grow or change.
As a result it feels incomplete, as if we're watching a filmed version of
the first or second draft of a story rather than the finished product.
Establishing a conspiratorial tone with low-key voice-over narration,
professional card player Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) ushers us into the
smoky netherland of illicit poker that flourishes in musty back rooms of
old buildings, protected by thick doors and beefy security guards.
According to Mike, success as a rounder comes as much from reading the
body language of an opponent as it does from the cards he holds.
After losing a whopping $30,000 during one bad night, Mike swears off the
game and focuses on his legal studies, to the great relief of his
girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol). The future looks bright until nine months
later, when Mike's best friend Worm (Edward Norton) emerges from prison
with a rakish smile on his face and a heavy gambling debt on his back.
Within a short period of time, Mike is in the game again, with his
relationship and studies in shambles and a major portion of Worm's debt
on his own shoulders. To save their collective asses and assets, Mike
must play the game like he has never played before.
Matt Damon anchors "Rounders" with another rock solid performance. He
possesses something magical that goes beyond his good looks and
exceptional acting skills. When you study Damon's face you can instantly
picture what he looked like as a child and what he will look like as an
old man. There's an air of familiarity about him that's comforting;
watching him onscreen is like visiting an old friend. The film's
exploration of the gritty, exotic gaming underworld is even more
engrossing with Damon as our tour guide.
The chameleon-like Edward Norton creates another riveting
characterization in the jittery, impulsive Worm, who comes off like a
younger version of "Midnight Cowboy's" Ratso Rizzo. But, as presented in
this screenplay, Worm's relationship with Mike just doesn't ring true.
We're told that they have been best friends since childhood, but together
they're like oil and water. Worm isn't just reckless and compulsive; he
is completely self-destructive and shows no hesitation in pulling Mike
down with him. Surely his behavior would have destroyed their friendship
long before the men reached their mid 20's.
To be sure, the incredible loyalty Mike displays for Worm doesn't extend
to his girlfriend. He appears to have little problem breaking his
promises to Jo, a stable woman who stuck with him even after he blew $30
grand, choosing instead to head out for a night of rounding with Worm.
The relationships between all three characters are unconvincing, playing
simply as contrivances of the screenwriters to get all the cast members
into their proper positions for the card games.
Pity poor Gretchen Mol, stuck with an utterly thankless role. Her job is
merely to simmer, cluck at her wayward boyfriend and look wounded.
Although the acting credit will be nice for her résumé, the film would
have played more honestly had it omitted the role completely and just cut
to the chase.
As for the other supporting characters, Martin Landau gives a luminous
performance as Mike's law professor and ersatz father figure. Projecting
strength, grace and warmth beneath his frail, bird-like appearance,
Landau is a wonder who gets better and better with each new film. John
Turturro does solid work as a man who plays not for sport, but to support
his family. And John Malkovich is fun as Mike's nemesis, employing a
thick Russian accent in a hammy, but engaging performance.
Ultimately, "Rounders" is a minor pleasure. The glimpse into an exotic,
edgy world is absorbing and the performances of Damon, Norton and Landau
are rewarding, despite the shaky credibility of their characters'
relationships. But "Rounders" is frustrating because it could have been
so much more, had the writers only devoted more attention to the script.
Oh well, I suppose with a film like this, you just have to play the cards
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott