Well made but eventually a bit thin for anyone not a poker fan
A charming idea, almost romanticized: if you are young, clever, good looking, and savvy at playing poker you can be ultra cool and maybe even wealthy. That makes for a pretty good movie, if not a very accurate reality. It isn't quite enough to keep two hours going, however, and so the big picture here is to enjoy what it has.
A quick comparison might be made to "The Hustler" and related pool shark movies. And like that classic, "Rounders" is about charming deceit. Matt Damon is the main man here, an ex-poker champ who has "gone straight" until his former partner in crime, Ed Norton, gets out of jail and ropes him back into the thrills and malevolence. Like the pool movies, and like the glitzier and more ambitious "Oceans" movies, personalities matter most. The setting, the glint of money, and most of all the plots matter less than you'd think.
So everything is pretty good along those lines, partly because Damon is fun to be with and Norton is simply terrific. An embarrassing appearance in the beginning and end of the movie by an overacting John Malkovich gets in the way of Damon's performance, however. And the general attempt at creating a bunch of bad guys behind the scenes is filled with thin clichés and mediocre acting.
This is the result of having to make more of the story that was ever there. The main idea--that the two leads get into money trouble and have to earn a ton of cash in a few days of wild poker games--is eventually actually a bit of a bore. The gamesmanship is always interesting, of course, but the impetus behind it grows old. The addition of Martin Landau as a Jewish lawyer who gives Damon a mitzvah as a kind of honor paid to continue a favor once given him is a touching part of the larger plot, making you wish there was more of this somehow, more of something genuine and a bit different.
It might not have helped that I recently saw "Croupier" with a young Clive Owen as a poker dealer, because that movie, whatever its simplicity and other limitations, actually made the poker scenes more real for me. In fact, one problem with "Rounders" is you never get to actually sense the betting itself, and the cards--the playing and the strategies of playing--are glossed over with some tossing of chips and flipping of cards, all in a vague muddle.
I did enjoy watching overall, but it left me a little disappointed and restless.
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