In theaters Friday, Oct. 4
2 stars (out of 4)
Even in a frenetically paced action pic about high-stakes poker, there's still enough down time to ruminate on a pressing topic. Justin Timberlake's movie career, to be specific. Why does this gifted performer who commands the stage and kill it on Saturday Night Live consistently flail as a big screen leading man?
There's no right answer, of course. There's only the latest evidence: A misguided attempt to play a gambling wunderkind trying to upend a kingpin. He lacks the gravitas and the charm, and frankly, at age 32, is too old for the part. The drama starts at Princeton University, where student Richie Furst (Timberlake) loses all his tuition money in an offshore online poker game. Sensing a fraud, he heads to Costa Rica to confront the game's infamously shady mastermind, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). But Ivan's smooth. And he looks like Ben Affleck. He convinces Richie to work as his right-hand man and clean up his underworld messes, morality be damned. Meanwhile, the FBI is keeping tabs on all of the above. Can Richie outsmart them all?
With its exotic location and Miami Vice-esque flash, the film earns high marks for pizzazz and style. Too bad the script is such a clunker. From Richie's first brush with trouble, his every move becomes a witless, predictable cliché. More annoying, this alleged whiz is so whiny that it's a wonder Ivan doesn't feed him to the crocodiles lurking in the ocean immediately. A love interest is underwritten. Wads of cash literally getting thrown around add little excitement. And a last-ditch attempt to add an emotional element to Richie's dilemma -- look, his sadsack, gambling-addict dad has turned up in Costa Rica too! -- goes nowhere. Just when it seems like the writing can't get any lazier, Richie fills in the narrative blanks via a voice-over that squeezes in every gambling metaphor this side of Las Vegas. Yes, dude, we know it’s important to play the hand you’re dealt!
The only one having fun here is Affleck. In a glorifying supporting role (his first since Argo), he's a perfectly sleazy and cheesy scene-stealer. Everyone else involved, though, should have known when to fold 'em.