Likable Matt Damon, that most appealing of young actors, is making a career out of working against expectation and playing characters Americans are least at ease with: geniuses.
In “Good Will Hunting,” Damon was a math wizard whose casual grasp of arcane matters made older men (and Minnie Driver) unsteady. In “Rounders,” he’s a master of a less academically oriented body of knowledge, the game of poker.
Damon’s presence is one of several things “Rounders” (the name is poker slang for a smart professional player) has going for it, including having another fine actor, co-star Edward Norton, to work off of. The subculture of high-stakes poker is involving and director John Dahl (“Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction”) is a celebrated creator of dark and ominous moods.
But like a poker hand that looks promising but doesn’t quite play out, “Rounders” is unable to do justice to its potential. Off and on involving, the film’s failure to fully capitalize on its assets does not have a convenient villain. Instead, it’s the combination of several factors going more wrong than right that proves too much for it to overcome.
Damon plays narrator Mike McDermott, a Manhattan poker whiz good enough to have paid half his law school tuition with his winnings. This despite having to compete against such players as the veteran Joey Knish (John Turturro) and the sinister Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), an eccentric gambler “connected all the way to the top of the Russian mob” who examines Oreos as if they were tea leaves.
The main action of “Rounders” finds Mike nine months into a vow of staying away from cards, a promise taken at the urging of girlfriend and law school cohort Jo (ingenue of the moment Gretchen Mol). Though Las Vegas’ World Series of Poker has always been a dream, Mike now considers his playing days to be behind him.
Enter Worm (Norton). Like a brother to Mike, and just as fanatical about poker, Worm has been in prison for a bit and once he gets out he’s determined (encouraged by Michael Rispoli’s unpleasant loan shark Grama) to start gambling again and to get Mike to play along with him.
Oscar-nominated for “Primal Fear” and impressive in “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” Norton is an actor with the gift of disappearing inside his roles, and the energy and confidence he brings to a toothpick-chewing conniver like Worm makes the character the perfect foil for Mike’s straight-arrow diligence.
An insidious instigator and peerless wheedler, Worm is the kind of guy who thinks “it’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money” and even has an ace tattooed on the inside of his forearm so he’ll always have one up his sleeve.
“Rounders” is written by the beginning screenwriter team of David Levien & Brian Koppelman, and the best thing they bring to the story of Mike and Worm, aided by French cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier and a top-notch production team, is a sense of verisimilitude, the ability to make this world as real as the ones we’re more familiar with.
But it’s one thing to give viewers an air of authenticity, it’s another to mystify them completely, and one of the most obvious ways “Rounders” falls down is that anyone who lacks a serious knowledge of poker is not going to be able to figure out what happens in several of the film’s key hands. Yes, we know who wins and loses, but that’s all. The specifics of a hand, the details that build the drama and the tension, will be totally lost to viewers without an intimate knowledge of no-limit Texas hold ‘em, among other things.
Another of the film’s gradually emerging weaknesses is a lack of plausibility in the story line. Entire subplots, like one involving Mike’s law school dean Professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau), are far from believable, and the relationship between Mike and Worm also takes increasingly unconvincing turns.
Finally, as good as a director as he is, Dahl is better at the flashy, gleefully neo-noirs he made his reputation on than at a film whose emphasis is more on character than high-wire plot pyrotechnics. “Rounders” is not badly directed, but it does not set anything on fire either.
Though Damon is an actor who’s flatly impossible not to root for, the longer this film lasts the less patience we have to stay with him. Like Malkovich’s out of control Russian accent, “Rounders” ends up reaching a place too hard to understand and even harder to believe in.
* MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong language, some sexuality and brief drug use. Times guidelines: a dark film all around.
Matt Damon: Mike McDermott
Gretchen Mol: Jo
Edward Norton: Worm
John Malkovich: Teddy KGB
John Turturro: Joey Knish
Martin Landau: Professor Petrovsky
Famke Janssen: Petra
A Spanky Pictures production, released by Miramax. Director John Dahl. Producers Ted Demme, Joel Stillerman. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bobby Cohen, Kerry Orent. Screenplay David Levien & Brian Koppelman. Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier. Editor Scott Chestnut. Costumes Terry Dresbach. Music Christopher Yong. Production design Rob Pearson. Art director Rick Butler. Set decorator Beth Kushnick. Running time: 2 hours.
* In general release throughout Southern California.