Playing it tight, the mitt joint known as Hollywood rarely goes full tilt. It balks at going down to the felt, always hustles for a lock, and aims for the nuts to get white meat out of the railbirds. In other words, in the high-stakes game of moviemaking, studio execs hate real risk, always stack the decks, and prefer a sure thing. Check out Miramax's attempt to cash in on Matt Damon's hugely successful 1997 (which included a shared Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting) with Rounders, a standard coming-of-age tale set in back-room card salons.
Damon, taking up those bull-necked, working-class city-boy parts Tom Cruise has finally vacated, does fine with Rounders' lukewarm hand, but the real ace in the hole is his co-star, Edward Norton. Damon plays Mike McDermott, a poker-playing whiz who's gone to law school and sworn off the game. His chirpy girlfriend and classmate, Jo (played by Gretchen Mol, whose publicist must have set some kind of record by getting her on the cover of Vanity Fair on the strength of two parts, the other in Woody Allen's forthcoming Celebrity) dutifully stands by her man after his catastrophic loss to Russian card shark Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, hacking and spitting his way through an over-the-top Slavic accent). But Mike's good intentions and Jo's faith don't stand a chance once Mike's old buddy Worm (Norton) gets out of prison. Aghast that Mike would throw away his God-given ability at the poker table, Worm lies, cheats, and bullies Mike back into the game, all the while galvanizing him into accepting his destiny.
Norton plays Worm as a loveable jerk, a rogue seemingly without an ounce of decency who is nonetheless the lone character capable of flat-out honesty. Worm is clearly destined to end up facedown in an alley, but Norton imbues him with such live-wire electricity and irrepressible cheery energy that his ambiguous morality is easily more engaging than Damon's fresh-faced earnestness.
In the wings are standout supporting bits by John Turturro as sad-sack Joey Kinish (decked in awful velour shirts), a true "rounder" (someone who makes a living playing poker) whose melancholy dignity will never allow him to go for broke; Martin Landau as a law professor with a rabbinical bent who decides to take a gamble on Mike; and Famke Janssen as a shrewd and feisty club manager.
Director John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction) stages plenty of muscular card playing in numerous New York and Atlantic City dives while first-time screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman pepper conversations with excessive insider slang. Although the script was in development before the release of Good Will Hunting, the part of Mike nevertheless clearly echoes the brilliant but misunderstood boy/man theme of Damon's big hit.
Aiming for the unflinching tone of Robert Rossen's 1961 pool-hall saga The Hustler, Rounders instead falls into pat predictability; it more closely resembles the melodramatics of Steve McQueen's 1965 vehicle The Cincinnati Kid. Even its full house of obvious talent doesn't make for a winning hand.