THE AISLE SEAT - "ROUNDERS"
by Mike McGranaghan
It's officially the fall movie season. This is always my favorite time of the moviegoing year because it's when the most original, offbeat films are released. The summer movies are fun, the Christmas movies are award-winning, but the fall offers pictures that are too unusual for summer and not as obviously Oscar-craving as the winter ones. For me, fall always brings the promise of something new and different at the movies. The first of this fall's offerings is Rounders, an intriguing peek into the underground world of high-stakes poker. (See what I mean?)
Matt Damon stars as Mike McDermott, a young poker ace/law student. Mike is a master at sizing up his fellow players by observing their "tells" - those unconscious tics that give away a person's hand. In the movie's prologue, Mike goes up against a formidable Russian player with mob ties nicknamed Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). He ends up losing his entire $30,000 tuition to the Russian. Afterwards, Mike promises his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) that he'll give up the game for good and get himself back on track. He is able to get a position as a law clerk thanks to his friendship with Professor Petrofsky (Martin Landau), who is also his mentor.
Things go reasonably well until Mike's best friend Worm (Edward Norton) is released from prison. Mike and Worm had pulled off numerous poker scams together, many of which played upon Worm's ability to trick shuffle a deck, thereby dispensing the good cards in an advantageous way. Worm exits the prison ready to pick up right where he left off. He's still in debt from before his sentencing and the interest has accumulated greatly. Mike refuses to play again, but agrees to help Worm get set up with some games. Before long though, Worm has gotten himself in more trouble. The only way to save him from his debtors is for Mike to win enough money to pay the debt.
There are a few details that add to the suspense and drama of Rounders, but in the interest of fairness, I will not reveal them. Instead, I'll focus on the things that fascinated me about this film. Chief among these things is the sense of realness the movie creates. It was written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, who have spent time in New York's poker clubs and know the game inside and out; subsequently, the film has a powerful sense of realism. Mike speaks in a kind of card-playing vernacular that is almost incomprehensible to those who don't understand the game (myself included) but which are nonetheless understandable in spirit. Watching this film is like watching "ER;" you may not know all the technical lingo, but you know what's happening on screen.
I was also amazed by the film's depiction of the underground poker circuit. A shrewd player can find a game anywhere - frat houses, fraternity clubs, country clubs. As you go deeper, you find more serious games in hidden warehouses and the back-rooms of bars. The word "rounder" applies to someone who makes the rounds of these games, travelling from one to the next, earning money on the simple games so that it can be gambled in bigger games against better players. Mike is a perfect rounder; he dreams of one day going to Las Vegas to compete in the World Series of Poker.
I was unaware of the extent to which this kind of thing occurs, so I found its portrayal to be compelling. I also liked the film's depiction of compulsive gambling. Mike McDermott stops gambling but never stops thinking about it. Once he starts re-playing, he does so at the expense of his education, his girlfriend, and even his own safety. Although the movie is ultimately kind of pro-gambling, I thought it did a good job of getting inside Mike's head, showing us how poker (and the need to score big) takes over his life. There's a great scene where Mike is confronted by another player named Joey Knish (John Turturro). Knish is the kind of guy who gambles only to make ends meet. He can't understand Mike's obsession with becoming a poker ace any more than Mike can understand his relative frugality. The two characters demonstrate the difference between passion and addiction.
Rounders has its share of predictable moments within the story. For example, you don't have to be a genius to figure out that Mike will somehow have to face down Teddy KGB again at the end. However, the picture works because it focuses so heavily on the psychology of poker. "You don't read the cards, you read the man," Mike says at one point. The game is about out-strategizing your opponent by finding his weakness and exploiting it. Any game in which bluffing plays such a crucial role is bound to be as much psychological as strategic.
The director here is John Dahl, one of my personal favorites. His films - which also include Red Rock West and The Last Seduction - specialize in combining twisting plots with subtle dark humor. Dahl is very effective in communicating the psychological aspects of the game, and he gets solid performances from the actors. Matt Damon and Edward Norton are both outstanding, getting into the grimmest parts of their characters without resorting to gimmickry. Norton in particular is fascinating to watch because he embodies loser-dom to perfection. Newcomer Gretchen Mol doesn't have the biggest part, but she gives her character a sad intelligence that makes an impression. John Malkovich and John Turturro again prove why they rank as two of the cinema's leading MVPs. These guys are always believable, even with difficult characters; they are true pros.
Rounders benefits from all the performances, as well as the insightful quality it brings to the subject matter. This is an intelligent, absorbing movie that really pulled me in.
( 1/2 out of four)