Justin Timberlake, front, and Ben Affleck star in the new crime thriller 'Runner, Runner.'
(Photo: Scott Garfield, 20th Century Fox)
By Claudia Puig
Even with its glossy Costa Rican setting, Runner Runner (* * out of four; rated R; opening Friday nationwide) is a vacant excursion with plot holes the size of a small Caribbean island.
Justin Timberlake plays Richie, a not-so-subtle name for a former Wall Street star whose career tanked with the recession in 2008. He becomes a Princeton grad student/gambling whiz, then casually tosses his education away and is sucked into the world of online wagering.
For context, a few establishing headlines and news snippets are shoehorned in to let us know that online betting is a growing practice on university campuses. Richie is a kind of Joe College bookie, hustling his classmates - and even a few professors - onto an Internet poker site.
When Richie loses his life savings - which just about covers the cost of one term's tuition at Princeton - he deduces it's a swindle and hops on the next plane to Costa Rica to face the guy who done him wrong. He gets his money back - no joke - but is seduced by the lure of fast-track wealth.
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The refund and seduction are courtesy of an even richer guy, with fewer scruples - as in none. This Costa Rica-based CEO is gambling tycoon Ivan (Ben Affleck). When a character is named Ivan, he's bound to be terrible. Everything in the movie is just that obvious, including the clunky expository voice-over narration.
One of the film's biggest problems is that Richie is an unsympathetic and rather dim character. The badly drawn role does the likable Timberlake no favors. The talented singer/actor was better in The Social Network, Friends With Benefits, Alpha Dog and almost any SNL skit. He plays a Wall Street weasel who decides to go back to school when his other options disappear, and he contributes to the gambling addictions of students and professors. He's hardly a figure of integrity. When a teacher approaches him for help with a bad bet he placed, Richie shrugs him off arrogantly. Consequently, it's hard to care much when he gets used by Ivan.
Gemma Arterton plays Rebecca, Richie's love interest, and also the COO of Ivan's gambling empire. Richie and Rebecca look good together, but have a lackluster chemistry.
Meanwhile, the feds are closing in on Ivan. FBI Special Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) is building a case against Ivan for racketeering, extortion, bribery and other unsavory practices.
Ivan is a devious and clever fellow. Affleck is at his best when his character is most malicious. Not only does he seem to be having fun with the role, but his Spanish is terrific. Audiences can debate whether he ought to play Batman, but his linguistic ear cannot be disputed.
Richie, on the other hand, is not as bright as his Ivy League admission would indicate. It's glaringly obvious that his new boss is up to no good. But Richie is an odd mix of savvy and naïve. It takes a few beatings and double-crossings before his IQ points seem to register. And when they do, it comes to a pretty anti-climactic conclusion.
When the story lags, director Brad Furman resorts to focusing on shots of chomping crocodiles.
But neither toothy reptiles nor stunning beachside vistas (actually shot in Puerto Rico) offer enough risk or reward to make this gambling thriller worth betting on.