“Why are all your moves so smart and noble and I’m always the idiot piece of shit?”
I have never played a serious game of poker in my entire life–hell, I don’t think I’ve ever really taken part in any poker game, serious or casual, either in the company of friends or among jaded professionals. It’s just never appealed to me. Probably never will.
So then why is it that I’ve seen this week’s poker-dominated Overlooked Movie innumerable times and could recite countless scenes on the spot without preparation?
I’ll tell you.
Written by first-time screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman, directed by John Dahl (“Red Rock West”), “Rounders,” starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, is just one of those pictures. It’s inclusive in its exclusiveness, and it’s so accessibly esoteric that it effortlessly bridges the gap between seasoned veterans of the game and…well, people like me.
The premise is as follows: Damon stars as Michael McDermott, a law school student and (former) elite poker player who loses his life’s savings in one mismatched game and retires from the business (or whatever you’d like to call it). Enter Norton as the recently penitentiary-released “Worm,” an equally adept though much less ethical poker player who, in the simplest terms, is Michael’s downfall. But I guess that depends on how you look at it.
Their relationship–which is rich and colorful and completely authentic–is the dramatic cornerstone of the film and is every bit as compelling as the myriad poker games (and all the intricacies and technical vernacular therein) depicted throughout.
They exhibit a stunning level of chemistry that comes across as totally natural, and I have no reservations in comparing it to Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin’s in “Midnight Run” (an Overlooked Movie of yesteryear) or Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church’s in “Sideways,” the latter comparison probably being a closer approximation.
But there’s much more the film has to offer, apart from their dynamic, that’s meticulously calibrated and extremely involving. Across the board, you’re unlikely to find better casting in a film (Martin Landau, John Malkovich, John Turturro) whose characters operate in what is so often a dingy, foreboding atmosphere, interacting with individuals who disfigure those indebted to them and populate their living quarters with drugs and prostitutes.
One can’t help but think as the movie presses on that Michael, and even Worm–as deliquent as he may be–are way too smart and talented to consistently be in the company of such unfavorable associates. Though I guess that’s the only viable financial alternative for professional poker players in a place as far from the World Series of Poker as New York City.
And that is, I think, the central component of the film’s appeal: It favors an articulate, intellectual approach to its characters and the game at its center over a flashy and unrealistic one. Nobody’s winning games here with miracle hands underscored by swelling orchestration. It’s all lowkey, precise, and relentlessly interesting, even for (or, rather, especially) people with a limited understanding of the simplest aspects of the game.
In its totality, “Rounders” is an exceptional piece of work, and its cult status, unfortunately, makes a lot of sense. With the poker sub-culture having ballooned and since leveled out (please correct me if this perception is off-base), its popularity and inherent regard is tentative at best. But it contains living, breathing, intelligent–and ofttimes eloquent–people inhabiting a world they should have the good sense to stay far away from. And it earns its climax, however inevitable it may be.