Child's play

Early in Rounders, director John Dahl gives us a tight shot of card shark Matt Damon's hand grabbing a big wad of $100 bills—clearly his gambling stash. Damon's long coat sleeve obscures most of his hand, making it look as if a small child's paw is wrapped around all that filthy lucre.

Rounders

directed by John Dahl

starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton

starts Friday

It's an apt microcosm of the entire film: These are children playing at an adult game—high-stakes poker. Damon, appealing as he is, never really convinces us he belongs at the table with the big-time players. The much-vaunted Gretchen Mol never convinces us she's a star—or even much of an actress. Her main attribute, here, as on the cover of this month's Vanity Fair, seems to be that she possesses nipples.

Most crucially, Dahl (The Last Seduction) never convinces us that we're watching a cohesive film. He understands the risk and rhythm, the stage fright and paranoia of poker. But the film is preoccupied with the game's arcana—the story seems a wobbly scaffold to hold up the cool bluffs, the card-tapping, the suckers waiting to be took. (Sorry, that's the kind of syntax the film calls for.) In brief: Damon was once a great card player—never mind that he looks too babyish to have once been anything—who lost it all and went straight as a law student. His high school best friend, Worm (Ed Norton), didn't go so straight and ended up in jail. When Worm is sprung, he and Damon end up at the tables again, owing big G's to the mob. Jimmied into all this is the Gretchen Mol girlfriend character.

Really fine card movies should work, implicitly or explicitly, like David Mamet's 1987 classic House of Games, with the plot echoing the strategies and maneuvers of the card-playing. The film itself should emerge as a duplicitous, bluffing player. If it's just about winners and losers, why not make a Keno flick? Or a smoky Lotto mood piece? The Last Seduction showed us that Dahl was capable of insidious filmmaking, but here he's all too guileless. He's a sucker who gets took.

 
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