Call it the Great Gatsby gamble on the American Dream/Scam masterpiece. It takes an excellent writer or director—Terence Winter with Boardwalk Empire, or Martin Scorsese with Goodfellas and Casino, or David Fincher with The Social Network—to make a criminal or dubious empire seem attractive yet disheartening, alluring yet chilling, even grand … yet tragic. Brad Furman's Runner Runner, from a script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Ocean's Thirteen), instead mixes the vacuous and tedious, the slick and predictable, the smarmy and smug. Its one saving grace is relative—it's not nearly as execrable as Oliver Stone's recent Savages, a stoned-dead look at marijuana-peddling.
The script folds early and fast, like a cheap deck of cards. In no time, Princeton graduate student and online-gambling pusher Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is way off-campus, in Costa Rica, eager to meet gaming-website kingpin Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). This is the kind of lazy movie where people tell a character-too-dull-to-be-an-actual-protagonist that he'll never meet the mysterious kingpin—then he does, less than two minutes later.
More shrugging connecting-the-plots follows, with gambling lingo, racism or sleaziness spouting from the mouths of male assholes (“I'm a fountain of money in this shithole [Costa Rica]“; “think about him banging your girl while you're in jail”), conversations steaming with banal bluff and bluster, and tropical scenes wafting from perfume and liqueur ads: scantily clad women, swanky clubs and parties, mansions, speedboats, fast cars zipping down palm-tree-lined highways, sunrise-swept beach. (Block's empire, especially when he feeds crocodiles, seems like the world of a Bond villain just a tad too stupidly narcissistic to actually attempt global domination.)
“I love those little slimy bastards,” Block says of the primordial reptiles, but it's the plot that badly bets the house on loving him and Furst and the others here, slimy bastards all. Amid its slick Vegas capitalism-porn, the only interesting ambivalence in Runner Runner is whether it'll make any viewers who can sit through it to the end get up and run, run towards or run, run away from online gambling. Or maybe they'll just deal it what Block suggests Furst practise—that “fuck-you look.”