Justin Timberlake must have a thing for Ivy League campuses. In 2010, he creeped on Stanford girls and buddied around with Harvard nerds as Sean Parker in “The Social Network.”
Timberlake rendered Parker’s overconfidence and general scumminess seamlessly. And he stood out like a sore thumb in the company of asocial computer coders who go to luau-themed fraternity socials hosted in campus multipurpose rooms. The dynamic worked perfectly in “The Social Network” because Parker was meant to be this somewhat creepy adult who could never quite fit in with Mark Zuckerberg and his buddies. Parker — and JT, too — were a little too cool.
In his latest endeavor, “Runner Runner,” Timberlake roams the brick pathways of another Ivy, this time Princeton and this time as a graduate student. The film, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, is about Princeton student Richie Furst (Timberlake), who pays for school with an online poker gig because his previous stint on Wall Street makes him ineligible for financial aid. He gets caught by campus administration and is forced to call it quits. Attempting to make a few years’ tuition in one game, he logs on to the poker site, loses all of his money and bounces off to Costa Rica to confront the site’s head, online gambling titan Ivan Block (Ben Affleck).
That all happens within the first five or 10 minutes. The film’s fast and uneasy pacing immediately disqualified its believability. A movie about online gambling, an industry that circulates millions — even billions — of dollars could have provided an interesting plotline. After all, “21,” a similarly overdramatic gambling thriller about an MIT student who goes to Vegas to win big counting cards, was at the very least extremely entertaining and even seemed distantly feasible.
Jim Sturgess of “21” was a far more believable college student, confidence shaky and too brainy for his own good. Similarly, Richie was supposed to be this “gifted” mastermind who whips through algorithms but can’t quite figure out his place in life. It proved impossible for Timberlake to shed his douchey confidence. Timberlake never went to college in real life but instead self-actualized touring the world with ‘N Sync. In an interview with the Daily Cal, he said he prepared for his role as a college student by “drinking beer.” “Isn’t that what you college kids do?” he asked.
He even said, “I’ve never played a character quite like this, so it was a lot of fun for me to be the guy who’s in the eye of the storm that everything is kind of happening to. Versus playing the instigator …” In fact, Timberlake joked that he originally wanted Affleck’s role, the cocky, conniving and, in many cases, fairly brilliant bad guy. (Sean Parker, anyone?) “Villains are always fun to play,” Timberlake said.
The one point at which you did see Richie’s charisma waver was in his interaction with love interest, the charming, beautiful and British Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton), who should look familiar from “Quantum of Solace,” in which she played Strawberry Fields. In a steamy and sexy outdoor bar in Costa Rica, their one makeout session — against all odds, considering it’s JT and a Bond girl — was neither steamy nor sexy but instead awkward and forced. It seemed that Block, with whom Rebecca used to be involved, had more chemistry with her.
Timberlake and Affleck would have been more successful had they switched roles. In the role of Block, Affleck was equally ill-suited. Overemphasizing every sharp word and heartless shrug, he seemed like Chuckie from “Good Will Hunting” walking into a room of executives and talking about a retainer agreement. The pretty boy would have done better as a wide-eyed college kid.
Despite the big-name cast and potentially provocative storyline, “Runner Runner” failed to gather enough momentum to muster any entertainment value.
Anna Carey is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected].