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Don't Bet on This One

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 1998

  Movie Critic

Matt Damon is a card shark in "Rounders." (Miramax)

John Dahl
Matt Damon;
Edward Norton;
John Malkovich;
Famke Janssen;
John Turturro;
Martin Landau;
Gretchen Mol
Running Time:
2 hours, 7 minutes
Profanity, sexuality and drug use
Matt Damon looks like he ought to be playing Go Fish instead of high-stakes poker in the penny-ante "Rounders." Yet there he sits amid the East Coast's craftiest card sharps, the Breck Blond prodigy suckering the underworld's lesser lights out of bookie-size bankrolls.

The wholesome pup's poker face alone, however, hardly accounts for the film's failure to thrill. Damon's character doesn't really have that much stake in the story's outcome. And while it's intermittently engaging, the drama's flatter than a sucker's wallet – or as the rounders would put it, "down to felt."

First-time screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman have clearly done their research on this netherworld with its funky characters and rich argot. The material's all there and nicely presented, but there's no passion, no purpose and not much of an engine. That's because the story's hero, Mike McDermott, doesn't exact change; instead, change happens to him.

McDermott is the narrator both of his life and of the movie, which doesn't show us what happens, but all too often tells us what's happening in voice-over. Pithy maxims abound: "If you can't spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker," Mike explains even as the actors demonstrate same. Sure it sounds great, but this is a visual medium, isn't it?

John Dahl, the director of "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction," excels in the noir milieu and this shadowy subculture is no exception. Even though "Rounders" lacks Dahl's perverse humor, it doesn't lack for authentic-seeming atmosphere. You can practically smell the greed.

Set mostly in Manhattan with side trips to Atlantic City and the burbs, the story follows Mike's short-lived attempt to give up the game. He swears off poker after losing his law school tuition in a match with Teddy KGB (deliciously reptilian John Malkovich), a card shark and club owner with ties to the Russian mob.

He returns to his law books and the arms of his girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol), a whiny preppy who's simply delighted with his reformation. Mike has all but landed an internship with one of Manhattan's most prestigious law firms, when Worm (squirrelly Edward Norton), an old buddy, is released from prison.

Jo urges Mike to stay away from the aptly named Worm, but Mike remains loyal to Worm even when the friendship threatens to end in his destruction. Yet the two childhood chums no longer seem to have a thing in common. Like the hero of "Good Will Hunting," this fellow is reluctant to cut the ties with his past, no matter how limiting.

Yes, it does sound familiar. Perhaps it's because Damon is hardly tempting fate in his second role as a poor little whiz kid. They might just as well have called the movie "Good Will Hustling."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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