Did Rounders glamorize poker and gambling?
Rounders (1998) is a very popular Poker movie, and stars Matt Damon as a down-on-your-luck go-getter, who gambles thousands of dollars instead of going to law school. If I did that, I’d probably lose my house. What’s this movie’s message? Is there one? This movie is like a brightly colored billboard for Poker, and it plays like an advertisement.
This movie is the opposite tone of The Gambler (1974) starring James Caan, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. It does not have that type of grit and realism. Rounders places Poker celebrities front-and-center and Matt Damon’s character obsesses over them. The Gambler doesn’t celebrate anything but losing, but Rounders completes it’s down-on-your-luck story in a positive way. It’s much more fun and entertaining—and hey, it’s not my money.
The narration in Rounders is probably the best part of the movie. It makes the whole thing a little more personal and the camera catches how people feel as Matt Damon drolls out snazzy sentences. People describe him as “smart” and “inventive” and “tough”, thanks to his quick Poker instincts. If he wins, everyone likes him. If he loses, he drives a beat-up truck through smoke-filled New York streets, to the sounds of some smooth jazz. I like the jazz, the truck—not so much.
John Malkovich is probably the most colorful part of this movie. He looks like he’s having fun being a one-dimensional jackass with a bad Russian accent. It’s just a horrible accent, but his lines are as quotable as Lou Gerhig. Noir director John Dahl provides some opportunities for Malkovich to look good, especially in the final scene, as The Big Bad. Malkovich takes advantage, using his mannerisms to become a smarmy jerk throughout. I imagine this could have been in the script, but I doubt it.
The movie invites us to believe Poker is a “way out”, when it’s only really gambling. A fun game, maybe. And certainly entertaining to watch, but it has plenty of consequences for Damon and his pal has his life threatened, but Damon has plenty of “outs”. He is a law student. He has a gorgeous, gorgeous girlfriend. He has a job. He sits with the best Poker players in the world. What does he have to complain about? His luck is bad, so I guess that means no law profession for him—he’s got something to prove. Huh?
Matt Damon’s character Mike is unlucky, the quintessential characteristic of any down-on-your-luck hard-worker. He is portrayed as blue-collar, but he lives in a spacious New York apartment and impresses five different judges with his wit. There’s nothing blue-collar about this guy. He’s a rich kid. However, that fact is really immaterial to the movie, because he’s back gambling after about twenty minutes runtime.
You could look at Mike’s “luck” two ways. First, the movie makes light of Mike losing 70,000 dollars to a Russian gangster with mob connections, and his “luck” is not that realistic because he lands on his feet, wholeheartedly. On the other hand, it makes for a better movie, faster-paced story, and even some character development. I think the script plays it right. There is a lighter hand to “luck” that gives some consequences, but not too many to make the movie depressing and unwatchable.
More to the point, Martin Landau describes our calling in life like destiny, and therefore reinforces Poker as Mike’s celebrated purpose. After all, if he likes it so much, if he’s devoted to it wholeheartedly, it’s what he should do, right? All I can say to that is: it’s not what I would do. Then again, I don’t have a Poker pro’s skill and mentality. I saw a guy on the internet the other day hosting a Poker “stream”, where he was just playing cards online for hours to a crowd of many onlookers. In the end, he won 9,000 dollars. If you look at his totals, he had plenty of bad days, and bad months too, but he had the skill to grind it out, like sweeping the floor at a dusty factory day after day. It’s not glamorous, but that one day where he won 9,000 dollars is this movie.
This movie has a sense of style. The music is awesome, as I’ve already said, and some shots are gorgeous. Edward Norton’s character comes out of an apartment at night, and everything is bathed in yellow, with mist or smoke rising up in the distance. A shadowy figure walks along in the cold, until we see that it is mike. Some of the scenes look visually stunning, and are well-choreographed.
Overall, this is a good movie. The answer to my title question is yes, the movie does glorify Poker, and gives ample reason why losing 70,000 dollars gambling isn’t so bad. That’s pretty foolish, however the movie is surprisingly meaningful, because it uses Martin Landau to teach lessons and explains that “luck” is really not luck at all, but what you make it. I like that.
Although I only like a couple Matt Damon movies, he is good here, and the supporting cast is great. The bad accents are funny and the use of popular Poker myth is great. At the end of the day, Rounders is entertaining, and historical too, probably influencing the popularity of Poker and convincing some rich guy at ESPN to pick up the World Series, so they could thrill us with even more blue-collar, rise-to-the-top stories.