Dir. John Dahl; Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol
[2 out of 4 stars]
To make viewers invest in watching a film, it’s important to make them feel something for the main character. Whether that emotion be empathy, hatred, or plain curiosity, drawing viewers into a film necessitates making them somehow invest in the protagonist. Without that connection, a film becomes easily forgettable, and, unfortunately, this is the case with John Dahl’s Rounders (1998).
The plot is predictable, as are most films about poker (21 , Casino Royale ), with an underdog who recently lost it all in a game later entering a high-stakes game and overcoming all obstacles to beat the odds. In Rounders, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a law student and skilled poker player living in New York City and using his knowledge to pay for school. After losing all his money in a game early in the film, he swears off poker, making his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) happy, and focuses on earning his degree. This lasts only until his best friend Worm (Edward Norton) is released from prison. Worm is also a card player, but his tactics are more underhanded than Mike’s. The pair have a longstanding camaraderie from their teenaged years when they were the only students without money at their elite high school. When Mike tells Worm he’s sworn off poker, Worm is incredulous and, after extensively lamenting Mike’s retirement, is, of course, able to convince him to return in order to help Worm pay off an enormous debt he accumulated before prison. When the sharks Worm owes money to become impatient, the pair have five days to win $15,000. The film then proceeds as might be anticipated.
What makes Rounders so frustrating is that Mike is not a character with whom viewers can quickly connect. After he gives up poker, he seems to be doing well; he finds a job and is happy living with his girlfriend. Yet once Worm appears, he makes one glaringly poor decision after another — he turns the car around to return to a poker game, he doesn’t call his girlfriend after she leaves him for playing poker, and he vouches that Worm will repay all of his debts. The earlier part of the film suggests that Mike is smarter than his later decisions, but so much of what he does seems just plain stupid. Sometimes, watching a character barrel towards an obvious, unfortunate conclusion can be an emotionally devastating experience; but when that culmination is easily avoidable by someone who seems like he should know better, it becomes irritating. We also aren’t given much background about him on which to ground a relationship. In an effort to give us insight into his thoughts, the film uses near-constant voiceover of Mike explaining what is happening in a scene. But pairing voiceover with a Matt Damon smirk or eyebrow raise is not enough to build a character. There are better ways to create a dynamic personality than literally describing what they are thinking all the time. For instance, when Mike walks in on some of his professors playing poker and offers them advice, he says “I don’t know if I’m going to bring my legal career to a crashing halt before it even starts, but I just can’t help myself.” This sentiment is already evident and does not need to be expressly stated. Damon is a good enough actor to make his emotions and thoughts clear without constantly voicing them aloud.
In addition, the writing often ends up repeating what is happening onscreen or overstating sentiments more than is necessary. For instance, during one poker game Mike says “I know all the reasons I shouldn’t be here. But sometimes reasons don’t matter.” Perhaps this is an another attempt to give viewers insight into his thought process, but we can already tell that he wants to be here, despite all the reasons he shouldn’t be. Rounders is also dotted with clichéd lines like “We can’t run from who we are. Our destiny chooses us.” While the writers may have imagined that such statements would deliver a punch, they don’t have the intended impact.
One of the more entertaining aspects of the film is watching Damon and Norton interact with one another. Their characters’ relationship is a clichéd sort of brotherhood, but their personalities clash wonderfully. Damon is, as usual, cheerful and polite, a hard-working law student just trying to secure an internship with his favorite professor—all while trying to avoid the fact that he’s addicted to playing poker and recently lost all his money for school in a game. This ostensibly happy-go-lucky character, albeit with a darker side, is one that Damon has played many times before (in films like The Departed  or The Talented Mr. Ripley ) because it’s a role he plays well. While it’s not by any means his best performance (in my opinion, that award goes to Ripley), fans of Damon will enjoy what we’ve come to expect. Norton, on the other hand, emanates the sort of deviant, devil-may-care attitude that one might assume a person called Worm to have. He embodies his lackadaisical persona so fully that he doesn’t even seem concerned with the lines that he delivers. With his leather jacket and ever-present cigarette, Norton’s blatant disregard for rules makes him a perfect foil for Damon’s character and leads to lively arguments. But Damon’s and Norton’s performances are not enough to revive the film.
Although Rounders tries to build to exciting, pivotal moments, they end up falling short or coming off clichéd. A close-up shot and a swell in music are not enough to create the feeling of victory if the viewer is not invested in the narrative or its protagonist. The film’s most poignant moments occur between Mike and one of his law professors (Martin Landau) but unfortunately these are few and far between. Dahl’s final point seems to be about the power of poker: it draws people in without any logical reason, and it’s exasperating for those watching while being exhilarating and terrifying for those playing. Regrettably, by the end of the film I felt more like the onlooker than the player: irked and disappointed.