Volume 92, Issue 8
Wednesday, September 16, 1998
wheeling and dealing
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Rounders deals an ace
Gazette File Photo
IF YOU CAN'T TELL WHO THE SUCKER IS IN THE FIRST 10 SECONDS, THE CHANCES ARE IT'S PROBABLY YOU. Matt Damon and Ed Norton deal the chips in the new film, Rounders.
By Christina Vardanis
Matt Damon has been dealt a winning hand.
Since his breakthrough with last year's Oscar winner Good Will Hunting, he's worked with Hollywood heavyweights Robin Williams, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan). In his new eye-opening film Rounders, directed by John Dahl, Damon finds himself opposite the poker faces of screen legends like John Malkovich (Of Mice and Men), John Turturro (Quiz Show) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood). If acting is anything like playing poker, Damon is certainly drawing aces.
Rounders is set against the backdrop of an underground New York City poker world, built on a hierarchy of money. With links to the mafia, opening bets of $10,000 and a fat dirty guy named "Grandma" collecting money, these aren't exactly Vegas tourists playing for kicks. It's an entire culture focused around hustling, adrenaline, skill and the ability to read others with the glance of an eye. There's simply no room at the table for luck.
Damon plays Mike McDermott, an aspiring young law student who loses everything at one hand of "Hold 'Em" with Russian card shark Teddy KGB (Malkovich), the Godfather of the gambling underworld. After swearing off cards, McDermott finds himself lured back to the table by helping an old friend named Worm, played fantastically by Edward Norton, pay off some old debts. The result is an intriguing peek into a mind controlled world ruled by addiction. Respect and reputation hold more weight in this high-stakes world than daily profits.
The strength of this movie is in its almost comic book characters that are played exceptionally by the cast, creating a surreal environment that is still made accessible by McDermott's normalcy. The opportunity for Damon to be an apprentice under such great talent has paid off. His performance is subtle but strong as he portrays an "average Joe" with an exceptional skill for reading other people's cards blind. At times, the dialogue which reveals McDermott as a poker prodigy, is reminiscent of good ol' Will Hunting but for the most part the character is original.
Surprisingly, Norton is the stand-out performance in this star-studded cast. His appearance and character embody his name, as he worms his way through seedy poker houses, hustling up enough money to pay off what he owes. Norton commands pure hatred from the audience this is the guy even Mother Teresa couldn't love.
Malkovich's thick Russian accent and eccentric ways are completely over the top, but they work within the film's stylish setting and cinematography. Turturro reconfirms his title as the coolest actor of the decade, with an attitude and omnipotence that carry an aura of absolute power. When these intriguing characters embrace their surroundings and start their fast-paced dialogue filled with the technical terms of poker, insults and threats, it becomes a captivating world drawing in the audience, with or without consent.
This involuntary participation of the viewer is the most fascinating aspect of the film. The world of gambling is by no means glorified. It's a world that's full of brutal beatings, void of personal relationships and always sleeping with one eye open. And yet during the entire film, the idea of sitting at a table with volatile strangers who are out for your money and your blood comes across as strangely enticing. As the credits roll, the instinctive desire to call up some buddies and play a five card stud all night is overwhelming.
The realization that no one is immune to the seduction of such a lifestyle makes for an extremely captivating and enlightening film. No bluffin'.
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