Published September 1, 1998
Rounders directed by John Dahl is wish-fulfilment fantasy of a different sort from that of Let’s Talk About Sex. This is the fantasy of cool, and it is paradoxical that the hottest new stars seem to compete to out-cool each other. Needless to say, this loving cultivation of image has little or nothing to do with acting or drama. Just like Good Will Hunting, Rounders presents Matt Damon as the boy genius because that is the attitude he wants to strike. Somebody writes a script to make him sound like a smart guy, so he gets to say the lines and look like a smart guy. And a cool guy. He is a guy’s guy but also someone who can make the heart of the beauteous Jo (Gretchen Mol) go pittapat — even after she has dumped him for going back to his guyish poker-playing. Damon is the cinematic equivalent of a super- model, only instead of putting on expensive clothes, he puts on expensive lines in order to make himself look sexy.
There must be a lot of people who want that from the movies, which they peruse as other people idly page through a fashion magazine. To me it seems merely self-indulgent — not only on Damon’s part and not only on the part of John Dahl, whose Red Rock West and The Last Seduction showed real talent, but self-indulgent on the part of everyone involved, right down to John Malkovich as “Teddy KGB” and his hilariously over-the-top Russian accent. The endless voiceovers also tell us that the point of the picture is merely to present for our admiration Mr Damon’s multifaceted sagacity. “Listen. Here’s the thing.” These are the opening words of the picture, and right away you know you’re going to be relentlessly bombarded with the kind of shallow profundities that call themselves street smarts. “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”
All the while we are watching his character, Mike McDermott, collecting the whole of his stash and walking those familiarly mean streets of New York to a big poker game for no particular reason except that the film has to begin with his losing his whole stash ($30,000) to Teddy KGB, which of course sets up the climactic rematch. After his initial loss, Mike quits and goes to work as a delivery boy for his gambling buddy Joey Knish (John Turturro) while trying to work his way through law school. A menial job, he says in yet another voiceover, is “for rounders [i.e. professional card players] who forget the cardinal rule: always leave yourself an out.” But then Mikey impresses his law-school professor (Martin Landau) and the judges and lawyers at his amateur poker game with his knowledge of the cards each is holding. It is hard for him to resist the “open invitation to lay with these lambs.” He says he is retired. “I’ve made promises. . .I’m just a law student now.”
But not for long. When his best friend, Worm (Edward Norton), gets out of jail after serving time for trying to fix a basketball game, Mike figures he owes him one for not ratting him out. So he consents to help Worm run a poker scam on some rich college kids. This leads to some more hustles, which leads to the kind of indebtedness that movie gamblers always fall into — the kind that involves very large and thuggish fellows demanding repayment of principal and super-usurious rates of interest by Tuesday or death and dismemberment (not necessarily in that order) will follow — which leads to the big stakes game with Teddy KGB. No prizes for guessing what happens there.
Almost the only interesting thing about this film is that part of its point is to persuade us of the respectability of Mike’s career choice. Of course it is cool to be a bad boy. One quite sees that. But this bad boy continues to try to convince us that he’s a good boy. When Jo plays the time-honored female role and attempts to break him of his addiction, he refuses to be ashamed of it:
“Why does this still seem like gambling to you?” he says. “Why do the same five players sit down in the World Series of poker every year? Is it because they’re the five luckiest guys in the country?” Of course not! They’re just very clever guys like him, earning an honest living by separating suckers from their money. Martin Landau’s Professor Petrovsky appears to agree, and compares his own situation, as a man who disappointed his family by giving up rabbinical studies for the law, with Mike’s: “The last thing I took away from the Yeshiva was this: we can’t run from what we are. Our destiny chooses us.”
Of course, being a man of destiny is kind of cool too.