Poker beats law school
in the world of ‘Rounders’

It would be tempting to say that “Rounders” is evidence that Matt Damon has trouble carrying a movie.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh. “Rounders” pits two very prominent actors of the same generation against each other. Yes, according to the script they are buddies who will do almost anything for each other. That movie was “Good Will Hunting.” Edward Norton raises the stakes here for Damon and he’s not bluffing. Unfortunately, according to this script, it’s the Worm who folds with the better hand.

Damon as Mike McDermott is about as dry as day-old toast. His personality is uninteresting, his card games are uninteresting, his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) is utterly uninteresting, even his name is uninteresting.

But maybe benefit of the doubt is in order. Damon is one of the most articulate actors in Hollywood, and the Mike McDermott character does not seem at all in step with the perception of Damon’s values. To Damon’s credit, he does take the acting seriously. But this character doesn’t work.

“Rounders” is a coming-of-age drama of a dubious nature: a young man with a fine law career ahead of him who, in an agonizing process of self-discovery heightened by a cheap video sold on overnight infomercials, decides he needs to give it all up to be a poker player instead.

Two of the three most important moments of Mike’s career occur mostly offscreen. The first is a disastrous loss to a local Russian shark that wiped out his $30,000 “bankroll” (curiously important-sounding name for gambling money), a defeat so momentous his comrades will never stop talking about it. The second is downright strange, only emerging in dreamlike footage during the course of a conversation late in the film when Mike reveals to a friend that he once took down the world’s most famous player — and wouldn’t even show him the cards!

Onscreen, we are introduced to Mike as almost a recovering gambler. Curiously, the movie never even begins to suggest he’s in denial about his addiction to poker, even though he once lost everything, will stay awake 24 hours straight to do it, and will ask a judge for a $10,000 loan to do it some more. The script says the problem is not that he’s prone to gamble his life savings, it’s that he doesn’t trust himself enough to do it right. He doesn’t play cards anymore, because he lost so much money and his girlfriend won’t let him do it again. To make money during law school he has accepted a far less exciting and less lucrative line of work, driving a delivery truck.

Mol’s Jo is the only character with the slightest amount of sense in this film. Yet her exit is interminable. She and Damon have zero chemistry from the start, and after maybe a half hour of nagging, one really wishes she would rest her case and just declare a mistrial. Their final assignment together on the court case is 100 percent predictable, kind of like when you have done something that you know will bring a scolding, but have to listen to an extra-long five-minute tirade anyway.

It is Worm who will resuscitate a pulse in Mike. More importantly, Worm brings life to the movie. To Norton’s advantage, it is his character that is given the far more interesting backstory, a decent canvas upon which to paint a drama. Norton flourishes as a gifted street hustler with serious real-life issues he can’t outrun. Is there little doubt by the end of the movie that Worm is a superior card player to Mike? But he’ll never be rich, because he likes to cheat, is foolish and is undisciplined. He’s Cool Hand Lucas Jackson, three decades later.

It might be that Worm is a lot smarter than we think. All of his debts seem to be Mike’s responsibility. If you’re able to gamble at will, and get someone else to cover your losses, that sounds a lot better than the odds Mike is giving himself in Vegas.

The elder statesmen of the film are wiser than Michael as well and must lead him to his true calling. His parents, uncles, etc., are never in the picture, probably because the idea of parents supporting a son’s decision to quit a great law school situation to gamble in Vegas wouldn’t go over well in the values department. John Turturro, a splendid, underrated actor, plays as Joey Knish the Hal Holbrook role from “Wall Street,” the career pro in this controversial line of work who justifies it not as Holbrook did as funding “science, research, jobs” but as supporting his children. Does this line of work ever get him in trouble with the IRS, or street toughs who know what he does and figure he must carry large amounts of cash? Probably, but that’s another movie. Mike actually mocks Knish’s conservatism, but the necessary point is made, you really can make a living by playing poker.

Martin Landau, as Judge Petrovsky, is needed to tell Mike to go where his heart tells him to go. He must find his advice extremely convincing, or else there is no way a respectable judge would give a problem gambler who is a dropout $10,000 to go play some more. His writing of a check to a desperate Mike is achingly stupefying. Apparenly “enabler” doesn’t appear in the law dictionary.

Mike’s greatest inspiration is derived from a most low-budget source, a video of the 1988 World Series of Poker finale that looks like the type of event broadcast in the early years of ESPN, the type of video that self-respecting high school and college kids only watch at 3 a.m. during drinking games. Contrasted with Mike’s fabulous New York apartment, upper-crust female companionship and promising law career, longing for such a life at card tables seems beyond absurd, but maybe that helps us appreciate the enormity of his decision all the more. And we know he certainly can do it, because he once beat Johnny Chan, or so he says, and Knish believes him way too easily, but whatever.

If “Rounders” is such a dog, is there any hope of splitting the pot and not getting taken in the two-hour experience? Actually, yes. Norton’s scenes are endlessly watchable. And even some of the card-playing action is remarkably good.

And even a review that complains about Damon must admit, as with “Good Will Hunting,” that this remains a “watchable” film, and he is the star.

Poker (“The Cincinnati Kid,” “The Sting”) is far superior to blackjack (“Rain Man” and “21”) as drama, but too often the drama climaxes in an impossibly good hand. “Rounders” keeps us guessing a couple of times with two games in particular, when Mike and Worm first take down the rich college kids, and later when they battle the off-duty sheriff's police. The results in each may not be entirely unexpected, but they entertain.

“Rounders” can be considered a cousin to the earlier “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” in which two Manhattan buddies (in “Pope,” they are actually related) try to hustle their way into a better life. In each film, the responsible character is stung by the carelessness of the lunkhead, and it then becomes the obligation of the stand-up guy to erase the very serious debt of the moron. Interestingly, the films diverge only in treatment of the sidekick at the very end, when Mickey Rourke comes to admire the foolish chutpzah of Eric Roberts in contrast to Mike McDermott’s dismissal of the Worm. Both losers are bad for business, but it’s different with family, apparently.

“Rounders” is the screenwriting debut of David Levien and Brian Koppelman, who admit a fascination with “Goodfellas”-style characters. How Damon fit into that is unclear. As suggested at the beginning, it’s possibly a role he would not consider now. Levien told an interviewer how the movie came to be. “For ‘Rounders,’ we found these underground poker clubs as poker players first, and realized that this is the subject we want to write about. So we start going, and playing, and losing money, and making little notes to ourselves, and leaving ourselves messages on our answering machines saying, ‘OK, this guy is doing this,’ or, ‘This guy is doing that.’ ” Their story arc needs much improvement, but as an episodic work this film had unrealized potential.

Another movie to depict someone going straight in rather humbling circumstances is “Unforgiven.” The Clint Eastwood character, William Munny, is harmless as a sober man, almost inept. But give him a drink, and a gun, and he owns the town.

Munny, though, leads us to a different conclusion than Mike McDermott will. Mike’s malaise stems not from the dubiousness of playing cards too often ... but from not playing cards enough. Unlike Munny, he will be a better human being if he simply accepts his destiny and stops fighting it.

As Mike takes the limo to the airport, we can guess what will happen. He will find a cheap, perhaps even seedy, apartment, and he will play cards. And for long periods of time he will grind out a living like his mentor Joey Knish, but then he will tire of that kind of stodgy play and go all in against a Johnny Chan somewhere, and sometimes he will party, other times he will struggle to pay the rent. And once in a while Worm will drop by, and before Worm is banned from the casinos and someone gets punched, they will have a grand old weekend full of stories about KGB and Grama.

Meanwhile, any viewer of “Rounders” is likely to end up with a very unwanted side effect, shared (according to widespread anecdotal evidence) by virtually everyone who has ever attended college — the academic nightmare, the dream that one has not been attending class all semester and will horrifyingly be soon flunked. Don’t be like Mike. Skip the illegal card games and the trip to Vegas. Go to school. Get that law degree and meet a woman like Gretchen Mol. And when the Mike McDermotts of the world come back from Vegas broke asking you for money, tell them no, and spare the lectures. They’ve heard it all before.

3 stars
(May 2009)

"Rounders" (1998)
Starring Matt Damon as Mike McDermott ♦ Edward Norton as Lester “Worm” Murphy ♦ Paul Cicero as Russian Thug ♦ John Turturro as Joey Knish ♦ Ray Iannicelli as Kenny ♦ Gretchen Mol as Jo ♦ Famke Janssen as Petra ♦ Merwin Goldsmith as Sy ♦ John Malkovich as Teddy KGB ♦ Martin Landau as Abe Petrovsky ♦ Sonny Zito as Tony ♦ Michael Rispoli as Grama ♦ Melina Kanakaredes as Barbara ♦ Mal Z. Lawrence as Irving ♦ Josh Mostel as Zagosh ♦ Lenny Clarke as Savino ♦ Peter Yoshida as Henry Lin ♦ Tom Aldredge as Judge Marinacci ♦ Jay Boryea as Russian Thug #2 ♦ Lenny Venito as Moogie ♦ Richard Mawe as Professor Eisen ♦ Michael Lombard as D.A. Shields ♦ Beeson Carroll as Judge Kaplan ♦ Matthew Yavne as Professor Green ♦ Eric LaRay Harvey as Roy ♦ Dominic Marcus as Dowling ♦ Brian Anthony Wilson as Derald ♦ George Kmeck as Prison Guard ♦ Joseph Parisi as Property Guard ♦ Kohl Sudduth as Wagner ♦ Charlie Matthes as Birch ♦ Hank Jacobs as Steiny ♦ Chris Messina as Higgins ♦ Michael Ryan Segal as Griggs ♦ Kerry O’Malley as Kelly ♦ Slava Schoot as Roman ♦ Goran Visnjic as Maurice ♦ Michele Zanes as Taj Dealer ♦ Allan Havey as Guberman ♦ Joe Vega as Freddy Face ♦ Neal Hemphill as Claude ♦ Vernon E. Jordan Jr. as Judge McKinnon ♦ Jon C. Chan as Himself ♦ Lisa Gorlitsky as Sherry ♦ John Di Benedetto as LaRossa ♦ Nicole Brier as Sunshine ♦ Bill Camp as Eisenberg ♦ Tony Hoty as Taki ♦ Mario Mendoza as Zizzo ♦ Joe Zaloom as Cronos ♦ Sal Richards as Johnny Gold ♦ Josh Pais as Weitz ♦ John Gallagher as Bartender ♦ Adam LeFevre as Sean Frye ♦ P.J. Brown as Vitter ♦ David Zayas as Osborne ♦ Michael Arkin as Bear ♦ Murphy Guyer as Detweiler ♦ Alan Davidson as Cabbie ♦ Joey Vega as Face ♦ Akiko Ashley as Hooker ♦ Dar Billingham as Cocktail Waitress ♦ Marcelline Block as Law Student ♦ Tim Carr as Cardsharp ♦ Salvatore Cavaliere as State Trooper ♦ Jeff DeRocker ♦ Brian Donahue as State Trooper ♦ Bill Golodner as Russian Thug ♦ Michael Griffith as Broke Gambler ♦ Jason Hale as College Student ♦ Roberto Lopez as Card Player ♦ George F. Miller as Prison Guard ♦ Natasha Pavlovich as Hostess ♦ Maria Soccor as Atlantic City Call Girl ♦ Vinny Vella as Card Player at KGB’s

Directed by: John Dahl

Written by: David Levien
Written by: Brian Koppelman

Producer: Ted Demme
Producer: Joel Stillerman
Executive producer: Bobby Cohen
Associate producer: Tracy Falco
Associate producer: Christopher Goode
Executive producer: Kerry Orent
Executive producer: Bob Weinstein
Executive producer: Harvey Weinstein

Original music: Christopher Young
Cinematography: Jean Yves Escoffier
Editing: Scott Chestnut
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Production design: Rob Pearson
Art direction: Rick Butler
Set decoration: Beth Kushnick
Costume design: Terry Dresbach
Unit production manager: Christopher Goode
Post-production supervisor: Robert A. Hackl
Production supervisor: Margo Myers
Makeup and hair: Carla White ♦ Victor DeNicola ♦ Anthony Veader ♦ Rita Ogden
Stunts: Jery Hewitt ♦ Jack Lotz ♦ Peter Bucossi ♦ Norman Douglass
Special thanks: Seth Jaret


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