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'Rounders' 25th Anniversary Rewatch
The Matt Damon/Edward Norton poker drama is probably good if you’ve either never seen a movie before or are currently on heavy pain medications.
Rounders was first released on September 11, 1998. Its studio, Miramax, pushed it pretty hard when it came out, and with good reason: Matt Damon was coming off of Good Will Hunting and Saving Private Ryan, Edward Norton was coming off of Primal Fear and The People vs. Larry Flynt, director John Dahl was considered a big name in neo-noir thanks to The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, and the supporting cast included Johns Malkovich and Turturro, who were both at the height of their popularity. The slovenly rapist who ran Miramax at the time had good reason to believe it would make money and maybe even be an awards season contender.
As it so happens, he believed incorrectly: Rounders opened to mixed reviews, got zero Academy Award nominations, and made roughly $23 million worldwide on a budget of $12 million before marketing and distribution costs (in other words, it almost certainly lost money).
Unfortunately, time has not proven this picture to be some underrated classic. Rounders is the kind of film that I think would be pretty good if you’ve either never seen a movie before or are currently on heavy pain medications. The screenplay, by the team of David Levien & Brian Koppelman (Ocean’s Thirteen, Billions), is fine in a very Robert McKee way, but you’ve seen every single element of it in other, better movies (it’s not trying to make old tricks seem new - it’s just using old tricks). I think there’s a world in which it still might have made a good-enough film, but Dahl’s directing is similarly textbookish (the whole movie is shot using proficient-but-pedestrian standard coverage) and the casting is honestly not great. It feels like it badly wants to be a Scorsese movie, but instead of being directed by a working class asthmatic from Little Italy and written by an Iraqi immigrant dishwasher, it was directed by a perfectly healthy man from Billings, Montana and written by ivy leaguers from Great Neck. Which it was.
Damon portrays Mike McDermott, an underground poker player and overground law student. In a brief prologue, Mike ignores the advice of veteran gambler Joey Knish (seriously), whose primary character trait is that he’s played by a heavily-sedated John Turturro. As a consequence, Mike loses all his money playing poker with a Russian mobster named Teddy KGB (again, not making this up), whose primary character traits are that he’s Russian, he loves Oreo cookies, and he’s played by John Malkovich (and, yes, Malkovich doing a Russian accent ends up being the most entertaining thing about this movie).
Cut ahead nine months, and Mike has given up poker, is driving a delivery truck for Mr. Knish to pay off his debts, and is living with his fellow law student, Jo (Gretchen Mol). Jo’s primary character traits are that she’s blonde and that she doesn’t want Mike should gamble so much. There’s never any clear reason for them to like one another other than that they’re both attractive.
Unsurprisingly, the film is, on the whole, not kind to women. It’s the kind of movie where you learn about everyone’s father and nobody’s mother. Jo is portrayed as kind of frigid - the first time we meet her, she’s refusing to have sex with Mike because it would make her late for class (but they were careful to make sure she alludes to Mike have a big dick, lest Matt Damon’s overall fuckability be called into question). Another female law student, whose name I’m not sure we ever learn, is similarly work-focused and uptight.
By way of contrast, the most other important female character is Petra (Famke Janssen), this brunette who works at one of the poker clubs and makes it abundantly clear that she wants to shtup Mike (I think maybe the Archie/Betty/Veronica love triangle was the inspiration here). The only other female speaking roles are other women involved in poker, who are similarly all sexualized.
The implication is that Mike, and the world of gambling, are passionate and sexy, while Jo, and the world of not being named after baked dough, are passionless and celibate. Which really isn’t fair to Jo. Partway through the movie she leaves Mike on the grounds that he’s a lying, degenerate gambling addict, and it’s hard to disagree with her decision. But as far as the movie is concerned, she’s basically a shrew. In the last scene, after Mike has won a bunch of money and is dropping out of law school to go play in the World Series of Poker, it’s implied that Jo wants to get back together with him, as if her problem isn’t that Mike lied but that he lost. It’s also made clear that Mike doesn’t wanna get back together with Jo, as if she was a fool for having ever doubted his card playing abilities. It’s dumb.
Speaking of dumb: What knocks Mike off the no-poker wagon is the release of his best friend, Worm (Edward Norton), after an extended stay in a state correctional facility. Mike feels indebted to Worm, who went to jail rather than roll over on Mike for some con they committed together. But as anyone with an IQ larger than their shoe size would deduce about a grown man who has proudly adopted the name of a slimy, limbless, corpse-consuming invertebrate, Worm is not trustworthy (he’s also constantly chewing on toothpicks, I assume because someone involved in the production thought having him wear a shirt that says ‘Sleazeball’ on it would be too on-the-nose). And yet Mike keeps letting Worm dig him in an ever-deepening hole of bad debt with bad people, which makes Mike seem like a real dum-dum and renders Jo’s decision to dump him totally reasonable. If halfway through the movie Teddy KGB’s guys shot Mike in the head and threw Worm out of a window, it would elicit roughly the same amount of sympathy as you’d have for someone who was electrocuted after standing in an open field holding a giant metal rod in the middle of a huge lightening storm.
Worm is clearly modeled on Johnny Boy from Mean Streets, except Robert De Niro is a high school dropout and Edward Norton is a Yale graduate. He’s a great actor and he has a lot of range (he did get an Oscar nom that season, but for American History X) and I hate to disparage him… but he does not sell being a lifelong con artist from the urban mean streets of pre-Giuliani New York. The role needed to be played by someone more along the lines of a young Steve Buscemi or, come to think of it, a young John Turturro. They surround Norton and Damon with real-deal blue collar character actors like Michael Rispoli and Lenny Clarke to make the stars feel more authentic, but it actually has the opposite effect, like sticking two palm trees in the middle of a bunch of pines and hoping nobody notices.
Something else which might have improved the Mike/Worm dynamic would be a moment or two where Worm isn’t being a completely obnoxious asshole so he and Mike could reminisce about better times. As it stands, we really only know that these guys are BFFs because the annoying, expository voice-over tells us so; not for a second does it seems like either of them actually enjoys the other’s company. This year’s Creed III gave its protagonist and antagonist an almost identical backstory to the one Mike and Worm share in Rounders, but it’s executed a billion times better, in part because we actually get to see the characters share some non-confrontational moments together.
Martin Landau, meanwhile, shows up as a saintly judge and law school professor. He gets this big monologue all about how his rabbi father disowned him when he dropped out of the yeshiva and became a lawyer. The gist of the speech is that a zebra can’t change its stripes; when Mike asks him, “If you had to do it all over again, would you make the same choices?”, Landau replies, “What choices? We can’t run from who we are.” This is the movie’s stab at profundity: The story, we’re meant to believe, is about Mike realizing that he was, is, and shall forever be a gambler, and trying to be anything else is a waste of time.
Which is all fine and good, but Mike’s problem isn’t that he’s a gambler so much as it’s that he’s a yutz, and since he’s perpetually surrounded by violent criminals, it’s hard to back any argument that this is where he’s “meant to be.” He doesn’t even actively shake Worm off his back by the end; when it looks like they won’t make enough money to pay back a guy who wants to kill them, Worm chooses to go on the lam, while Mike chooses to stay and face the music (and by “face the music,” I mean “play another poker game but magically win enough to pay off his debts”). It would be much more dramatically meaningful if Mike finally told Worm to fuck off. As it stands, when the movie ends, it still feels plausible that Mike will be whacked by a bookie somewhere down the road.
The more I think about it, the more I feel like this, ultimately, is Rounders’ fatal flaw: It’s an inspirational sports movie wearing a gritty crime drama’s clothes, and those genres don’t pair well. The Karate Kid cannot also be The Gambler; Cool Runnings cannot also be Casino… although if someone wanted to remake The Karate Kid with Joe Pesci as Mr. Miyagi or Casino with Doug E. Doug as Nicky Santoro, I would not object.
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