If we evaluated performers based purely on effort and nothing else, Justin Timberlake would get an A+. Music wise, Timberlake has spent more than a decade as a pop-culture impresario, releasing multi-platinum albums as part of N’Sync and later (and currently) as a bestselling solo artist. Throughout his run, Timberlake’s dabbled in acting, giving an impressive supporting performance eight years ago in Alpha Dog and The Social Network three years ago. Subsequent attempts at taking his acting career to the next level have failed to impress critics and moviegoers alike, most recently with the underwhelming In Time. Timberlake’s latest effort to kickstart his career as a leading actor, Runner Runner, a dull, tedious dramatic thriller (minus the “thriller” part), won’t do anything to move Timberlake into “serious actor” territory. In fact, it might have the opposite effect on his acting career.
When we first meet Richard “Richie” Furst (Timberlake), Runner Runner’s borderline unsympathetic protagonist, he’s in full-on voice-over exposition mode, energetically explaining the ins-and-outs of online gambling, a multi-billion dollar cash engine (for the site’s owners, not anyone else, of course). Furst, a one-time Wall Street trader who lost an ultra-lucrative gig as a result of the Great Recession of 2008, decided to get a master’s degree in finance from Princeton University. To pay his way, Furst has turned his extensive gambling knowledge into steering potential marks to an online gambling site. As an “associate” for the site, Furst gets a not insubstantial cut of whatever each player spends online. When another Princeton student rats Furst out to the dean, he’s forced to stop his association with the gambling site, but still short on tuition, he bets his entire life savings on online poker and promptly loses everything.
Thanks to a university acquaintance with access to Princeton’s supercomputers, Furst discovers that the online gambling site cheated him (the winning card combos were well above the norm). Rather than learn a life lesson and move on, Furst decides to fly down to Costa Rica (actually Puerto Rico standing in for Costa Rica) and publicly confront the gambling site’s owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), in person at an associate convention. Impressed with Furst’s testicular fortitude, Block offers him a gig as his right-hand man and protégé. In a flash, Furst gets everything he’s ever wanted: a six-figure income, status, and respect. It’s a Faustian bargain, of course, but before Furst can learn the value of hard, honest work, loyalty, friendship (etc., etc., etc.), an FBI agent, Shavers (Anthony Mackie), swoops him and tries to convince him to work for the feds and help them take down Block.
Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s (Solitary Man, Ocean’s Thirteen, Runaway Jury, Rounders) script may have well been churned out of a screenwriting software program. Runner Runner not only plays it narratively safe, ironic given how often Furst and Block talk about risk-taking (and the need thereof), but repeatedly depends on “idiot plotting” wherein one too many characters make common sense- and IQ-challenged decisions (again, ironic given how smart Furst and the others are supposed to be) to push the plot along to the next turn or non-twist. Even the predictable turn from cautionary tale of greed and ambition – a disingenuous one given that we’re expected to identify with Furst’s pursuit of wealth, power, and privilege – to revenge-thriller territory – with Furst finally waking up to Block’s Bond villain-inspired villainy, including not one, but two risible scenes involving chicken carcasses and crocodiles – feels utterly rote and predictable (because it is).
Timberlake and Affleck make for passable co-leads and antagonists. Timberlake has grown as an actor, but carrying a dramatic leading role – as opposed to a light, comic one – seems to be beyond his range. Affleck takes obvious delight in playing the monologue-prone villain, though nothing he does in Runner Runner will convince skeptical Batman fans that he was the right actor to take up the cape and cowl in the Man of Steel sequel. Not surprisingly, Runner Runner wastes a supporting cast, including Mackie and Gemma Arterton as Rebecca Shafran, Block’s second-in-command, onetime girlfriend (and possibly current bedmate), and Furst’s obligatory romantic interest, and John Heard as Furst’s gambling addicted father. That’s partly the result of Koppelman and Levien’s by-the-numbers screenplay, but it’s just as much the responsibility of director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, The Take). Elevating source material seems to be beyond Furman’s current abilities as a director. So does a distinct, recognizable visual style.