'Everybody gambles," says Richie Furst, a Princeton grad student who plays online poker to pay his tuition in "Runner Runner." Whether it's the stock market or real estate, he tells us, "if you're risking something, you're gambling."
That opening line makes it clear that "Runner Runner" isn't really about online betting. It's a metaphor for Wall Street, of course. It's also a fairly brazen rip-off of a certain 1987 movie by that name.
"Runner Runner" dresses up Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" in the garb of "The Social Network," replacing traders' terminals with sleek laptops, and power ties with shiny casual shirts. High-rise balconies have become beachside infinity pools; midtown nightclubs are now raves (look for DJ Deadmau5 spinning tunes). Stepping into Charlie Sheen's whiz-kid role is Justin Timberlake as Richie, who discovers he's been swindled by a foreign-based site run by Ivan Block (Ben Affleck, no substitute for Michael Douglas). Richie flies to Costa Rica to confront Ivan, then starts working for him.
The similarities continue: John Heard plays Richie's hangdog dad, Gemma Arterton plays the high-class trophy, and Anthony Mackie snarls (rather well) as an FBI agent who wants Richie to turn informant. "Runner Runner" might get away with the cribbing if it brought anything truly new to the table (the script is by Brian Koppelman and David Levien), but its only selling point is an above-average turn by Affleck, cast against type as a charming villain. For once, Affleck's superior, slightly bored affect works in his favor.
A little rough stuff might have goosed the movie's energy, but "Runner Runner," though rated R, feels like a harmless PG-13. We hear talk of violence and dirty deeds but never see them, which makes it difficult for us to truly fear Ivan -- what's so bad about the guy? -- or to sympathize with the knock-kneed Richie (Timberlake's pipsqueak performance doesn't help). Director Brad Furman ("The Lincoln Lawyer") adds grit, but only on the surface.
"Wall Street" probed difficult questions about morality and capitalism, but "Runner Runner" isn't thinking that hard. The movie mostly wants to look timely and seem topical. Instead, it feels irrelevant.
PLOT A Princeton whiz kid takes a job with an online gambling kingpin.
CAST Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton
BOTTOM LINE A "Wall Street" rip-off for the Facebook generation, with flash and technology instead of substance.