Serious movie makers should make poker movies only when they can make the game an intriguing element of their film.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

"Rounders" is a house of cards that falls. It is brought down by casting that doesn't click, weak dialogue, and a stumbling narration on the subtleties of playing poker. Although the plot is good enough, nothing brings the movie to life. It lies there, stale in the hands of unconnected characters.

Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) and Jo (Gretchen Mol) are law school students who live together in a state far short of paradise. Mike, you see, is a compulsive poker player who can't stay away from the New York City back alley tables where "rounders" make a living playing cards. And Jo is the one trying to make him go straight-an unpromising basis for warm screen chemistry.

Sick of being a law-school grind, Mike takes his $30,000 cash stash, heads for the lair of Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) and gambles away his tuition money. He teams up with his old buddy, a fellow gambler named Worm (Edward Norton). With Worm in tow, Mike loses both his future and his girlfriend. The two men try to hit it big in various poker clubs, but they always end up back at KGB's-in trouble.

Will the law student go straight and finish his education? Can he resist the temptations Worm sprays in his path? The problem is that we don't really care. Edward Norton, one of the most versatile actors at work today, fails to make Worm either a charming rake or an interesting villain. He's just a weak loser. Why, we wonder, is Mike loyal to this friendship?

It would take some very good actors to rescue this script, and they're here, but not one of them manages to connect with another in the ensemble spirit that might have made it fun. Instead, they are leaden, as if they know the movie isn't working. John Malkovich may have enjoyed concocting his Russian accent, but it is so bad that he becomes a laughable caricature in unfunny surroundings. After Edward Norton fizzles as Worm, the hand is Matt Damon's to win, and he just can't do it-excepting the two scenes where he gives virtuoso readings of the cards of his opponents.

In "Good Will Hunting," it was a stretch to believe Damon's wholesome boy janitor could be a closet genius, but once he won us over, the chemistry of Damon, Robin Williams, and Minnie Driver made the movie fly. In this tepid film, Damon's blond all-American boy looks silly in a den of thieves. Or perhaps it's simply that Matt Damon as a preppie poker player is as improbable a sight as John Malkovich at a Princeton reunion.

There is also a poker problem. Not one of these men who argue and babble over their cards would be tolerated in a serious game. Serious poker players don't talk. And serious movie makers should make poker movies only when they can make the game an intriguing element of their film.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 499
Studio : Miramax
Rating : R
Running time : 2h0m

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