Applaud—or cringe—as Appellate Judge Dave Ryan forgets his jock and flops a nut straight. Or, read about this poker film with Matt Damon and Ed Norton, if you prefer.
Our review of Rounders (Blu-ray), published August 17th, 2011, is also available.
"Here's the thing—if you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker."
Long before a parade of C-list celebrities began marching to Bravo to appear on Celebrity Poker Challenge in an effort to feed the public's voracious (and relatively inexplicable) appetite for televised poker, the Cadillac of Poker—no-limit Texas Hold-'Em—made a low-profile appearance on the silver screen. Rounders, a fairly low-budget (by Hollywood standards) drama set in New York City's seedy underground poker scene, opened in the fall of 1998, with a pair of up-and-coming young actors as co-stars. Both Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) and Edward Norton (Primal Fear) had recently made big-splash "debut" pictures, but neither were famous enough to bring in heavy-duty box office numbers simply by being on the marquee.
Rounders had a profitable theatrical run, and earned many critical plaudits, but wasn't a blockbuster by any means. As the years went by, however, the game of poker suddenly became a hot pop culture item again. Once the province of the dingy, organized-crime-affiliated card clubs portrayed in the film, poker was now…almost respectable. With this poker revival came a bit of retroactive appreciation for Rounders; a film that really captures the essence and the drama of the game. As part of its anniversary celebration, Miramax has issued a "Collector's Edition" of Rounders, replacing a previous bare-bones DVD release.
Facts of the Case
Mike McDermott (Damon) is a young law student in New York City. Reasonably intelligent, he's a promising future barrister—but he's an even better card player. His dream is to take his wad of cash and sit down with the pros at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. But first he has to build up his nest egg. To that end, he grabs his $30,000 bankroll and heads to a card club operated by a Russian mafioso known only by his nickname, "Teddy KGB" (John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich). Despite warnings that he's in too deep from his buddy Joey Knish (John Turturro, Do The Right Thing), a true "rounder" who grinds out a living pot by pot, Mike sits down with the Russian—and loses it all on a fickle turn of the cards. Every last cent—his Vegas money, his tuition money for school, his next month's rent—gone in one hand.
Several months later, we find Mike living a new reality. He's still in law school, but now he drives a truck for Knish to make ends meet. More importantly, he's sworn off cards entirely. But all that's about to change. His closest high school buddy, Lester "Worm" Murphy (Norton), is being released from prison. Mike and Worm had been involved in a game-fixing scam at their high school. Worm got caught, and did his time—but he didn't give Mike up to the cops. Mike feels a strong sense of loyalty towards him for this. Worm is also just as good as Mike at poker. But there's a twist. Worm is an expert "mechanic"—a card cheat. Although he's got the talent to beat almost anyone fair and square, Worm doesn't like to take chances.
Within hours of his release, Worm has Mike back into the game, working the Benjamins off of a table of college kids somewhere up the Hudson. This raises the ire of Mike's stick-in-the-mud girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol, Sweet and Lowdown), who apparently views poker as roughly the moral equivalent of raping children. Mike also uses his poker skills to dazzle one of his professors, Abe Petrovsky (Martin Landau, Ed Wood), and his judicial poker buddies. Unfortunately, he also vouches for Worm's credit at one of the local card clubs, the Chesterfield.
Within short order, Mike's in a bit of trouble. Worm has run up a big debt at the Chesterfield, and Mike's on the hook for it. Worm also owes quite a bit of money to his old partner-in-crime Grama (Michael Rispoli, Summer of Sam), who bought up all of Worm's outstanding debt…with the financial help of Teddy KGB. And good ol' Jo has her panties all in a bunch because Mike is missing their moot court practice sessions. (It doesn't seem to matter to her that he's, you know, trying to keep himself from getting whacked by the Russian mob. God, what a crappy boyfriend!)
Anyhow—wacky, poker-filled hijinks ensue. Also starring Famke Janssen, who is too hot for words, and Johnny Chan, who is not. (But he did win back-to-back World Series of Poker…Take that, Famke Janssen!)
ESPN's Bill Simmons once referred to Rounders as "one of the ultimate guy movies of all time." He's not far off the mark. Rounders has everything a guy could want in a movie: poker, shady Russians, male bonding, not ratting out your buddy, covering for your buddy's gambling debts, violence, hookers, Sopranos-level swearing, underdogs fighting The Man, and a really annoying girlfriend.
But it shouldn't be labeled as "just a guy flick." It's a clever, well-paced drama with a lot to offer the viewer. Ultimately, it's about the rise and fall, and re-rise, of Mike McDermott. Along the way, the film touches on issues of destiny, loyalty, the theory and practice of poker, and (of course) whether or not you should stay in the yeshiva. You don't have to know much about poker to enjoy the film—in fact, the film is a great starting point for those interested learning about the game.
Unlike most casino card games, poker isn't really a game of chance. It's a game of skill—skill in reading the other players. It's a very strategic game, especially at its highest levels. Hence, it's a very dramatic game as well—far more dramatic than, say, Go Fish, or Solitaire. But thankfully, the film doesn't hit you over the head with poker. The games are dramatic set-pieces that never feel forced into the action; they flow naturally out of the narrative. The seamless integration of the "sport" into the drama is reminiscent of another film dealing with a seedy, crime-ridden, often clandestine activity; a film that is probably the closest parallel to Rounders: 1961's The Hustler. Both keep the focus on the people, and not the game, at all times. Both deal with the rise and fall of a young player. Both make the protagonist face the consequences of his chosen lifestyle.
But only one had Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason—and this isn't it. Rounders doesn't quite have three true legends of the 20th Century screen in its cast, but that's not to say that the acting leaves much to be desired. Matt Damon isn't the greatest actor in the world by any stretch of the imagination. He is, however, a very good actor, and whatever he lacks in skill he generally makes up for in earnestness and effort. His portrayal of McDermott works very well for the character—he's a lot like Will Hunting, but more confident in himself. There's more subtlety in this performance, and he definitely holds his own in this crowd. Plus, he's from Boston, so to me he's as infallible as the Pope, or Curt Schilling. Nary a poor word shall issue from my pen with respect to fair Matthew. He's also doing a great job quarterbacking the Patriots. (That is him, right?)
On the other hand, Ed Norton and John Turturro are absolutely brilliant actors. Norton is arguably the most talented actor of his generation (which is also my generation, so I've been paying close attention). After his stunning, Oscar-nominated debut in Primal Fear, Norton had the best four-year opening run since the late John Cazale: Besides Rounders, he also appeared to great critical acclaim in The People vs. Larry Flint (directed by Milos Forman), Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen), Fight Club (David Fincher), and American History X (Tony Kaye)—the latter earned him his second Oscar nomination. (Cazale, yet another Bostonian—you know him as Fredo Corleone—appeared in five films before his untimely death from bone cancer in 1978; each was nominated for Best Picture.)
Norton's performance in Rounders is dazzling. His absorption of this character and his essence is so complete that it defies description. As he discusses in the commentary track, he actually lived this lifestyle for a time as preparation for the role, playing high-stakes games in the card clubs that inspired the film. Worm is an enigma—he's as bright as Mike and as skilled at cards as Mike, but some hidden self-destructive impulse leads him further and further into his own self-created abyss. Norton brings out every inch of Worm's complexity, whether it's through his mannerisms, his way with the cards (Norton practiced the card-cheater tricks incessantly to make his performance more realistic), or improvised dialogue.
Turturro's Knish isn't as prominent a character; but true to Turturro's history, he manages to bring depth to the character that isn't necessarily there in the written screenplay. Knish is, quietly, one of the most important characters in the entire film. He's the fate that Mike hopes to avoid, and the reality that Mike doesn't want to accept. Knish is the true face of the "professional" poker player: as he says, he doesn't play for the thrill of victory; he plays for money. He has a family to feed, so he can't be pushing thirty grand into a pot on a hunch. It's not a game to him—it's a job. Mike (fed by Worm's utter disdain for Knish) thinks Knish is being overly paternalistic and discouraging—but Knish, as the professionals say on their commentary, is really the best friend Mike has. Knish has learned the hard way; he's just trying to spare Mike that experience. Turturro, like Norton, communicates much of the character through nonverbal cues—a hard stare, a brief shrug, and so forth. Chalk up another fantastic supporting performance for the great John Turturro.
John Malkovich took some heat for his Teddy KGB performance in this film; many thought his Russian accent was a bit over-the-top. As it turns out, it's a real accent—Malkovich had a native Russian speaker read all his lines into a tape recorder, and imitated the resulting accented English. The twist? He had a woman read it—so yes, John Malkovich sounds like an over-the-top Russian woman in this film. Hell, that's worth the price of admission right there!
Miramax's Collector's Edition disc is a worthy vehicle for this film. The picture is presented in full 16:9 widescreen. I found the color balance a bit dodgy, though—it seems as if the film may have been digitally color-corrected. There seemed to be a reddish/salmon tinge to the film that I don't remember from the previous edition. It's nothing horrible—just something I noticed. Sound comes via a competent 5.1 surround track, but this isn't a movie that fires the rear channels very often. A French audio track (in 2.0 surround) and French, Spanish, and English subtitles are also available.
Only two of the extras offered actually deal with the film. There's a routine "behind the scenes" featurette—nothing special, really. More interesting is the commentary track with director John Dahl (The Last Seduction), screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman (Knockaround Guys, Runaway Jury), and Norton. Norton—an extremely bright guy who majored in history at Yale—is always interesting when he does commentary, and he talks quite a bit here. With Norton taking the lead, this turned out to be one of the better, more informative commentaries I've heard recently.
All of the other extras revolve around the game of poker. First, and best, is a separate commentary track featuring four professional players, each of whom have won the World Series of Poker: Johnny Chan (who, as mentioned above, also makes a brief appearance in the film), Chris Moneymaker, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson (when you see him in the other extras, you'll see how he got his nickname), and Phil Hellmuth. I had my doubts about this track—other than commenting on the poker games, what would they have to offer? Turns out they have quite a bit to offer. Their analysis of the poker games is absolutely fascinating. And it's somewhat surprising to hear these guys—whose job is to be as inscrutable as possible—actually opening up about their professional experiences. Plus, there's quite a bit of good-natured, but deadly serious, razzing between them. This track gives the film a whole new dimension—it's surprisingly good. Also included is a small featurette with these four, and other players, discussing the ins and outs of professional poker, plus a collection of "tips" from the pros. The tips are solid advice for players of all levels—but they're inconveniently presented on the disc. Each tip is very brief—but there's no way to play them all at once. Hence, seeing all the tips requires a lot of menu navigation. One big demerit for Miramax on this one.
Finally, there's a small game of poker that you can play using the DVD remote. Dave's Tip: don't be afraid to bluff your tail off.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Gretchen Mol is a very, very pretty girl. She's got a figure that 99.99999% of the women in the world would die for (and that some literally do die for, unfortunately). I'm sure she's probably very nice, and loves puppies, and gives money to starving children in Ethiopia, and all that stuff.
She also turns in the worst female supporting role I've ever seen.
Oh, lordy—where do I begin? Let's start with her acting, or more specifically, the lack thereof. As I said above, Matt Damon is not a great actor; just a good one. But when Matt Damon is absolutely blowing you off the screen in ever single scene—there's something seriously wrong. Calling her "wooden" would be an insult to lumber.
Admittedly, she's getting absolutely no help from Levien and Koppelman here. Jo is the walking definition of "girl you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy." Even the poker pros make fun of her. For example—Mike goes off to pick up Worm, then comes back in the morning after having played cards all night. Jo doesn't want him playing cards, and tells him that she wishes he had been at a strip club all night instead of playing poker. Um, Jo—Mike just walked in with a thousand bucks that he didn't have when he left. And you'd rather have him at a freaking strip club? Okay, you're mad at him for losing his tuition money to Teddy KGB—but you're still living in the same $3000-a-month (at least) apartment you were in before! What, exactly, is the problem here?
Then, being the ever-so-supportive girlfriend, she fails to back up her man when their moot court partners verbally bitch-slap him for being late. If you don't hate her by now…
…then just wait until she walks out on him. For no good reason, of course—she's just "folding a hand she can't win." GOOD F—ING RIDDANCE! Don't let that door hit your tight, skinny, extremely attractive ass on your way out, honey!
What follows next is the single most unrealistic moment in cinematic history. Mike is visited by Petra (Famke Janssen), the manager of the Chesterfield. She throws herself at him. Practically throws him down on the bed. Does he go for it? NO!!!!!! Let me get this straight: A guy has just been dumped by his P.I.T.A. girlfriend, and now Famke Janssen—Famke Janssen!!!!—wants to ride him like the Pony Express…and he turns her down????
I just can't suspend my disbelief that much.
Rounders is a very, very, very good film that falls just inches short of being "outstanding." Poker fans will love it; guys will embrace it; women should be able to find something entertaining in it. Miramax once again adds to its history of solid "collector's" offerings with this disc, which has extras uniquely tailored to this intriguing film. Unless you're absolutely repulsed by the very concept of poker (or unless you're Jo), you should give this film a look.
I don't think you've got the cards, Rounders. I'm going all-in.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director John Dahl, Screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and Actor Ed Norton
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