For the moment, though, it's even more important to be handsome than smart. The real game is stud, and that's how you land roles. Even the wrong roles. Case in point: Mike McDermott, the character Damon portrays in Rounders, is a New York City law student who's putting himself through school on the fruits of his gambling. He's one hell of a Texas Hold 'Em player, but neither Damon nor director Dahl ever convinces the audience that Mike's poker face outranks his baby face. That all-American preppy puss of his is full of privilege but bereft of hunger or larceny. It is not one of the faces you see along the rail at the racetrack or glowering at the poker tables. It just isn't. Damon looks like a kid lost in the wrong neighborhood, and his acting manners underscore that impression -- everything a bit too fine, too neat.
Nevertheless this intermittently interesting, intermittently foolish film tells us that Mike, in the person of Matt Damon, is a player of such degenerate proportions that in Scene One he can slip out of the apartment, pockets stuffed with cash, fall by the biggest backroom game in the city, and lose his entire tuition, in one disastrous hand, to a wily Russian Mafioso. It's like watching Snow White turn into a streetwalker.
Forget House of Games, David Mamet's arid, conceptual 1987 treatment of poker skills and con artists. The obvious models for Rounders, which was written by a couple of newcomers named Brian Koppelman and David Levien, are two of Hollywood's most beloved movies of the '60s. In The Cincinnati Kid (1965), troubled young cardsharp Steve McQueen finally takes down leathery veteran Edward G. Robinson in the best poker sequence ever filmed. The Hustler (1961) -- different game, same story -- seems to be an even greater prod to the present filmmakers. In that one Paul Newman's troubled Fast Eddie Felsen, having fallen low, struggles to earn a marathon rematch with Minnesota Fats and redeem himself as a pool player and a man.
Likewise Rounders' Mike McDermott scraps back for a second chance at high stakes against the sinister Russian, Teddy KGB. This viper is played, under cover of heavy accent and bizarre mannerism, by John Malkovich, and he is the film's most commanding presence. Watch Teddy eat an Oreo in the sallow light of the poker room and behold great acting in a telling detail.
Still, any six-year-old could figure how things will turn out. If, in your darkest heart of hearts, you're secretly hoping that Mike, struggling hero and standup guy, will misplay the crucial hand and wind up with his pretty blond head in Brooklyn and his legs in the Bronx, forget about it. Director Dahl's previous credits include the accomplished neo-noir thriller Red Rock West (1992) and, even better, the simmering scam-o-rama The Last Seduction (1994), featuring Linda Fiorentino as the most devious femme fatale since Barbara Stanwyck finagled her hubby's insurance policy in Double Indemnity (1944). Rounders, by comparison, is a sermon splashed with sunshine, the inspirational tale of a bright young fellow who finds his true calling.
What happened here? Did someone spike Dahl's gin with happy pills? Looking on the bright side -- which, in this case, is the dark side -- the movie has its share of vivid underworld atmosphere, local color, and wiseass observation. "It's immoral to let a sucker keep his money," one of the backroom sharpies -- or "rounders" -- reveals. Of course the movie industry has been living by that same aphorism for decades. Koppelman and Levien have also laced the dialogue with so much poker-table argot that even casino regulars may find themselves hacking through a verbal thicket of "third streets," "flops," and "rivers." But then what do you expect from characters who rerun videotapes of the World Series of Poker as avidly as football nuts watch old Super Bowls?
Meanwhile Mike endures the usual tribulations of a striver with barriers in his path. His best friend, a reckless card cheat and inveterate scammer aptly called Worm (Primal Fear's Edward Norton), gets out of jail just in time to pull Mike back into the game, ruin his rep, and put his life in danger. Mike's long-suffering girlfriend and roommate Jo (Gretchen Mol) finally gives up on him. He cleans out some rich boys in New Jersey, gets pummeled by a slimy goon named Granma (Michael Rispoli), and winds up nearly getting killed by a roomful of wronged state troopers in rustic Binghamton, west of NYC. Just when the scars on Mike's baby face are beginning to impart some character, he goes for the lifesaving big score against KGB.
Writer Koppelman says he got the idea for his movie while dropping $750 to cardsharps in an unnamed gambling hell, and he's done his best to reproduce the types he found lurking there. Malkovich's predator is the best of them, but let's put in a word here too for Norton, whose dangerous, edgy seediness fits the bill, and for John Turturro, the character actor whose very pores seem to ooze New York asphalt. Here he plays one Joey Knish, a wary veteran rounder who knows the game, knows his limits, and knows that his ex-student McDermott is both more vulnerable and more daring than himself. While Worm and Mike are throwing hundred-dollar chips around like candy, Knish serves as the conscience of the piece.
Unfortunately so does Martin Landau, portraying Mike's kindly law-school dean. Professor Petrovsky helps the boy out of a major jam and, for better or worse, gives him ancient advice. To wit: To thine own self be true. In other words some guys are not built to be lawyers but rather to sit with the big boys out at the Mirage, pursuing another kind of dream. OK, but you might feel a lot better about it if it could be vintage McQueen or top-of-his-game Newman doing the sitting, and not Matt Damon, his blond mop, and his collection of deep thoughts.
Directed by John Dahl. Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol, and John Turturro.