“Runner Runner” provides the world with very little except some great clips for Ben Affleck‘s eventual Golden Globe Life Achievement reel. He’s so much fun to watch as a duplicitous internet-gambling mogul that it’s almost worth slogging through all the sluggish and predictable scenes in which he does not appear. Almost.
It’s a story the movies never tire of telling: young, hungry, naïve go-getter falls under the spell of a charming mentor, only to learn too late that the mentor is using his protégé as a patsy while the law breathes down both their necks.
“Runner Runner” is basically “Paranoia” redux, only with a higher SPF.
Richie (Justin Timberlake) made a mess of things on Wall Street — according to one or two lines of vague exposition — and now he’s pursuing a master’s degree in finance at Princeton. The high cost of tuition has him recruiting fellow students to online gambling sites, and when the dean tells him to knock it off, Richie wagers, and loses, his entire stake on virtual poker.
A campus computer expert tells Richie that he lost against astronomical odds — and hearing Timberlake try to speak Math gives “Runner Runner” some of its many unintentional laughs — so Richie takes his case to the source: website owner Ivan Block (Affleck), who operates out of Costa Rica, since his shenanigans would lead to his arrest were he ever to set foot on U.S. soil.
Block apologizes and offers Richie a refund, but Richie takes the magnate’s alternate offer to come to work for him. It’s all fast cars and bikini babes at first, but Richie eventually realizes, with the help of Block’s ex Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), that Block’s Costa Rican empire is slowly crumbling and that Richie is being set up to take the fall.
“Runner Runner” is an R-rated movie with the failure of nerve of a PG-13 slasher flick; there’s the constant promise of real danger, but whenever someone crosses Block, they’re more likely to be beaten up than killed. (Even a schmaltz-covered government official gets scooped out of a river before being devoured by crocodiles.) As the plot grinds toward the climax, the intended suspense never surfaces; the material is so utterly familiar that you’ll see every twist coming.
Scripters Brian Koppelman and David Levien generate a lot of tin-eared dialogue (for instance, Richie’s opening narration includes the gem, “At Princeton, you’re either bred for it, or you bleed for it”), and the miscasting of Timberlake makes the writing seem even worse.
The singer has proven himself to be a competent actor, in films both great (“The Social Network”) and silly (“In Time”), but here his eyes dart about and his voice comes out through his nose, and he never conveys the slightest bit of comfort with the material.
Arterton is bronzed, dressed and lit like a sex doll, and terrific character actors like Anthony Mackie and John Heard are saddled with by-the-numbers roles as (respectively) an FBI agent and Richie’s deadbeat dad.
Which leaves us with Affleck, who swans through the movie as though it were any good at all, making his every scene feel funny and dangerous at the same time. His sinister snark scores while Timberlake’s mewling earnestness grinds “Runner Runner” to a halt over and over again.
Timberlake may be the musician, but when it comes to movie acting, Affleck proves that, sometimes, it’s the singer and not the song that matters most.