I think the lesson we've learned about smart college kids through movies is that they love to gamble and/or cheat at gambling. Whether it's hipster mathletes in 21 or Princeton grad student Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) trying to pay his tuition through online poker and losing it all in RUNNER RUNNER, these kids today just don't believe in earning an honest living by selling drugs on campus or something along those lines. But Furst discovers that the gambling site he has been using cheated him, and he flies to its base of operations in Costa Rica to meet the founder/owner Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) to alert him to the problem. Furst isn't even in Costa Rica 24 hours before Block offers him a top position in his company, partly because he's smart and partly because Furst came to Block with the information and not the media of message boards. And that all happens in the first 15-20 minutes of the movie.
The problems with RUNNER RUNNER are legion, and it's rare that I'll ever say this, but the biggest issue I had with the film is that it feels rushed. It's not in any way difficult to follow, but with a running time of 90 minutes, you really do wish the film would slow down a little to take a breath and let us get to know the players just a little bit better. Another problem is that we never trust Ivan Block. I never doubted for a second that he was behind the cheating or that he hired Furst for honorable reasons. And what's even more bizarre is that from the minute Block hires Furst, he starts acting suspicious of him, even though Furst is up front about topics ranging from his feelings for Block's sometime girlfriend and higher up in the company, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), to his dealings with an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) trying to get Furst to turn on his boss.
Making out the best in the film is Timberlake, who does the lion's share of pushing the story (from a screenplay by writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who wrote OCEAN'S ELEVEN) toward its inevitable conclusion. The entire production feels like director Brad Furman (THE LINCOLN LAWYER) had to trim the film down for time and just made sacrifices left and right in terms of character development and a more nuanced plot. But if that's not the case, then shame on him and the writers for shortchanging us every chance they got.
It's tough to believe that in a 90-minute movie, there could be wasted moments, but the couple of scenes with John Heard as Furst's gambling-addicted father are a total disaster and could easily have been excized from the film. Even when Block has him taken as leverage to get Furst to do something for him, it barely registers as a source of tension or drama. He's taken in one scene and a few scenes later, he's in good hands. Be still my heart.
It's funny, now that Timberlake seems to have thrown himself back into music for the time being, I'm all the more eager to have him jump back into acting. I'm pretty sure the Coen Brothers movie, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, is the last thing of his we haven't seen yet, and I liked having a backlog to look forward to this year. I'm still having a tough time figuring out who RUNNER RUNNER was made for exactly. It's a bust as a character-driven drama; the tension is undercut by its painful predictability; and while the acting is okay, it's not exactly anyone's best work either. The film features a bunch of artificially amped-up performances barely able to hold up a structureless story; if that's you're idea of fun, you'll be in heaven. The rest of you, you've made a wise choice avoiding it.