Tuesday, December 2, 2014

From My Collection: Rounders Movie Review

I reviewed this film sixteen years ago in the Connecticut College Voice. It is far too embarrassing to republish the original so in revisiting the film, here is my new and updated reviews.

For a brief time in the 90s and early 2000s, director John Dahl was establishing himself (in my estimation, at least) as a maker of dark and fascinating tales of low moral character or the underbelly of places we thought we knew. In 1998 he brought us, via a screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, to the underground and illegal poker scene of New York City in Rounders. He showed us a seedy version of New York that stands outside the realm of most Hollywood movies. And it’s populated with a cast of characters, most of whom you wouldn’t be too quick to invite into your home.

Matt Damon, riding the very peak of his late 90s popularity, stars as Mike McDermott. He’s a young law student who moonlights as a card player earning his tuition by outplaying some of the city’s best and, in some cases, most dangerous card players. Poker is one of those activities that has often been good for the movies. It’s easy to shoot a bunch of stationary characters seated around a table and there’s a natural building of tension in poker that marries well to cinema. But Rounders just about crushes most other car gambling movies. Mike McD, as he’s known to friends and associates, narrates his tale and makes it look like one of the most exciting things a guy can get into, even when it does clean him out or leave him battered and bruised.

In the first five minutes we watch as Mike drops thirty thousand dollars on a cocky and stupid move against Teddy “KGB,” a Russian mafia-connected gambler who runs one of several illegal card houses Mike frequents. Damon makes us feel that hollowness in the pit of his stomach as his enormous pile of chips is rakes away.

After that, eh calls it quits, makes a promise to his girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol) and goes to work for Joey “Knish,” (John Turturro), a guy who plays not for the thrill of victory, but to earn a living. Like any good story that has the hero stepping away from the thing he loves so early in the plot, all we have to do is wonder who or what will pull him back. And Rounders’ answers with a wallop in the form of “Worm,” (Edward Norton), Mike’s childhood friend who gets released from prison and owes some serious money to people who aren’t playing around.

I suppose I fell for Rounders in 1998 because I was also swept up in the Damon phenom story. But it’s also Norton’s presence which really sold me. He upstages Damon and steals the show every time he’s on screen. Worm is such a compelling foil because the fact that he’s Mike’s best friend makes you want to like him, but he’s so guileless, so irresponsible, dangerously impulsive, and frustratingly idiotic that you pull your hair out as he takes advantage of the good will line of credit Mike has extended him or steps into a room full of state troopers exactly when he knew he should have stayed far away. Worm makes this more than just a story about a guy who figures out how good he is at poker. He makes it into a story about how far friendship can be pushed and what the limits of a friend’s charity can be.

Rounders still resonates today because it is so much better than the sum of its parts. An additional layer of texture in the story has Mike trying to find himself and getting what he probably doesn’t realize at the time is sage advice from his law professor (Martin Landau in a small but memorable role), who talks about his own familial ostracization for failing to become a rabbi. Everyone has a calling and once we find out what that is, we owe it to ourselves to pursue it. Is poker playing and illegal gambling a calling? Is it respectable? Not to the people in Mike’s other life: the girlfriend; the law school classmates; the judges and district attorneys. That he has to compartmentalize his life to separate the two sides tells us something about how the one half will have nothing to do with the other. Knish creates one of the film’s most uncomfortable moments for Mike when he shows up at the law library while Mike is meeting with a study group. One world intrudes on the other in a way that is no understandable and totally unacceptable to Mike’s girlfriend, among others.

So at its most basic, Rounders is a story of finding oneself and does it in a setting that was (and still is, I would say) fresh. More than that, however, it’s a really well-made and well-written old school Hollywood entertainment. It’s funny, it’s at times tragic, but it’s also a really well-played thriller. It’s also just a kick-ass story and it’s about men (and some women) playing poker. It rises way above the formula that dictates all of its story beats and remains one of my favorites of a decade that preceded the fall.

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