Thoughts: Rounders (1998; dir. John Dahl)

Rounders-movie-poster-1020349804This is the film equivalent of comfort food to me, right up there with MONEYBALL and TEQUILA SUNRISE. I’ve seen it so many times in so many different scenarios that it’s almost relaxing to sit through it, even though I know it’s not a great movie by any means. But I know where it’s going, and I know who succeeds in the end, and I can put it on in the background while I’m cutting vegetables and not feel a whiff of guilt that I’m not paying close attention to it.

What’s wrong with this movie? For starters, John Dahl films it with all of the visual acuity of a made-for-TV-movie, or at least one that is pre-ordained to be part of a syndication package to cable TV: lots of fading to black, and lots of dead space that can be excised to fit in a couple more commercial breaks. For as much as I’ve enjoyed many of Dahl’s films, he puts them together like Woody Allen or Sidney Lumet, a vessel to simply capture the acting rather than adding anything substantive to it through color, camera moves, or editing. Yes, some of this falls under the purview of DP Jean-Yves Escoffier and editor Scott Chestnut, but Dahl has final say, right?

That last question is a bit of a waffle-y one, as this was a Miramax film, which means Dahl was likely under the thumb of Harvey Weinstein. That, though, leads me to my other complaint about the film, which is the choice of female actors for the secondary roles here. You remember a time when Hollywood or some power players decided that making Gretchen Mol a star was going to be their huge priority in the late ’90s? For about four years or so, her face was unavoidable, as was the unfortunate truth that she simply wasn’t much of an actress. I have to believe that her presence was shoehorned into this picture by big Harv, Poor girl could bring nothing more to this role but tight sweaters and furrowed brows, with every line of dialogue stumbling out of her mouth with no agency or heart to them at all. Worse still is poor Famke Janssen who is poured onscreen to lasciviously chew on straws and throw herself at Matt Damon in one particularly dumb scene.

This leads us to the bottom line of this picture: it is so badly written. In retrospect, this is partially forgivable because this was the first produced script by screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, but seeing their track record since then doesn’t let me give them too large of a pass; these were the men behind the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson remake of WALKING TALL and the post-Tarantino mess KNOCKAROUND GUYS. I appreciate that they don’t give us too much overwhelming explanation of the minutiae of no limit Texas hold ’em, but they do slather every line with such schmaltz and unctuousness.

But, one of the reasons I can continue to watch this is that it has a much better cast than it deserves. Much better. The dialogue doesn’t feel so bad coming out of the lips of a thespian like Edward Norton, Martin Landau, and John Turturro. Matt Damon was only just realizing his abilities as an actor, so to see him turn on the juice at times is fairly thrilling. Think of the scene where he meets Landau at the bar. His demeanor shifts so dramatically from when he hems and haws about his legal career to when he explains about his confidence at the poker table. Everything from his body language to his diction snaps to life when he talks about playing cards. It helps keep the overbaked chatter he’s given to read palatable.

Of course, there’s also the joy of watching John Malkovich practically slap on a furry hat and down a bottle of vodka in every scene he’s in. It’s completely over-the-top overacting that goes over the edge over and over again. But it’s Malkovich, for heaven’s sake. That’s where he lives and breathes. He lost the art of subtlety years before and the last 20 years of his career have been about watching him take a simple phrase like “$30,000” and turn it into an deliriously atonal jazz solo.

In spite of myself and my otherwise good judgement when it comes to film, I really like this movie. As I said to someone, it’s hardly a great movie, but there’s greatness in it. Just enough to sustain me until its expected denouement and the final departure of Damon’s character from the scene. You’ll find nothing new hiding in the crevices of ROUNDERS. Just slip it on like a comfy t-shirt and turn off your critical brain for two hours. You deserve it.

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