According to director John Dahl’s “Rounders,” professional poker players are very, very interesting people — for about five minutes. That’s about how long it takes for us to grasp that the key to what they do, as baby-faced card whiz Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, reveals, is “play the man, not the cards.” It’s a strange way to make a living, reading the eye flickers and nose-scratching of a bunch of guys (and in this movie, most of them are guys, many suitably fat and greasy-looking) hunched around tables in shabby, dimly lit rooms. And neither Dahl nor most of his actors ever quite convince us that there’s a good reason to sit in front of a movie screen watching them for more than two hours. There just never seems to be enough to look at in “Rounders,” other than a bit of cool, sublimated anguish or ecstasy as they win or lose it all. There’s lots of steam rising from the mean nighttime streets of New York City, but after a while even that comes to have a blank, facile look to it. After the whole thing’s over, you look back and you realize you’ve just watched a poker-faced movie.
The central conflict in “Rounders” is an ancient one, picked up off the scrap heap of movie clichis and dusted off hastily. One of the central features of that conflict is the good-hearted woman who gets to say something like “Don’t throw your life away, Johnny, on that (card game/race track/moonshine/what-have-you)!” and “Rounders” has its version in the pretty but excessively pouty Gretchen Mol. Mol plays Jo, Mike’s live-in girlfriend. The two of them are in law school together, where Mike is trying to build a respectable life for himself, intermittently basking in words of wisdom from his professor and mentor, Martin Landau. But Mike, unable to stay away from cards, loses every penny he’s got to the Russian-mob-connected Teddy KGB, one of the city’s toughest players (John Malkovich, chewing the scenery as if he hadn’t eaten for a week), a foreboding critter with a cute little quirk: He fills his poker-chip tray with Oreos, and at particularly tense moments, he’ll hold one up to his ear, listening for the soft whoosh as he unscrews it. (Now that’s character development.) After Mike loses it all to Teddy, Jo pleads with him to quit gambling, and he does — until his longtime buddy and poker partner, Worm (Edward Norton), gets sprung from prison, where he’s been doing time for distributing fake credit cards. Worm, deeply in debt from his pre-prison days, coaxes Mike back into action, and before long the two find themselves sharing a soak in that proverbial hot water.
What you end up with is a bunch of perfectly capable actors hanging around waiting for a decent hand. As the movie’s star, Damon has embarrassingly little to do. Mostly, he walks around looking slightly crestfallen, like he’s just realized he’s left his lost innocence in his other pants. Landau delivers his stock wise-old-timer routine, regaling Damon with cautionary, pointless tales about how he gave up rabbinical studies for law school. “We can’t run away from who we are. Our destiny chooses us,” he says pensively, unaware that somewhere, Yoda must be getting ready to slap him with a massive suit for copyright infringement.
There are flickers of promise in “Rounders.” John Turturro, as the deliciously named Joey Knish, is a kindhearted gambler who supports his family by playing cards and who cuts Mike a break when he desperately needs it. In his two-tone velour zip shirts, with his perpetually befuddled but sweet smile, Turturro has a shy, wise-guy charm. And when we first see Norton, his blaring orange prison jumpsuit is like a beacon of hope. The movie seems to jump to life when he’s on-screen. His role is an obvious lift from the charismatic screw-up played by De Niro in “Mean Streets,” but Norton has enough skill to make the character his own, even down to the way he lets his clothes hang on his lanky frame. Dressed in thrift-store shirts and vintage leather jackets whose sleeves are too short, his ambling swagger suggests both effortless cool and perpetually youthful awkwardness. Hanging out at a nudie bar, he gazes up at a dancer, transfixed — the look on his face is both cherubic and intense, like a kid spooning Cheerios into his mouth while keeping his eyes fixed on Saturday cartoons.
But Dahl — the director of “The Last Seduction” and “Red Rock West” — doesn’t seem to know how to draw the rest of the ensemble around Norton. The characters come off like wayward satellites, circling and bumping into one another randomly. “Rounders” does deal one small, unintentional pleasure — the mysteries of the Pyramids will probably have been revealed by the time anyone figures out exactly where Malkovich got his inscrutable Russian accent. “Count-eet!” he barks as he passes a tray of poker chips to Damon early in the movie, and I couldn’t wait for him to show up and open his mouth again. When I heard lines like “You haefhv my muneey?” and “Meestair son-of-a-beetch!” I wasn’t disappointed. Malkovich is occasionally a fine actor — his glittering malevolence cast a grave though ultimately heartbreaking chill over “Dangerous Liaisons” — but he’s played the beady-eyed bad dude too many times. What he does here isn’t a performance, but a stunt. It’s got to be a tough life, smearing bad accents all over your dialogue like margarine on a soda cracker. And you thought playing poker was a lousy way to make a living.