Picks and Pans Review: Rounders

updated 09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1998 01:00AM

Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, Martin Landau

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So much of the dialogue of this gambling drama is devoted to explaining who owes what to whom and at what penalty interest, I found myself thumbing mentally through my own bills, concluding that what America could really use is a motion picture about credit-card debt. Meanwhile, Damon, who looks about as natural in a dim, smoke-filled room as Ben Affleck would in a flophouse, was sitting down to yet another round of high-stakes poker.

Damon plays a Manhattan law school student and card shark who, for the sake of his girlfriend (Mol), swears off the game to hit the books. Then Norton, an old friend from both the gambling parlor and prep school (interesting combination), is back on the streets after a stint in prison. Norton promptly tempts Damon back into the game. Prone to cheating, he also racks up thousands of dollars in bets, relying on Damon's good name as credit, then sticks his buddy with the bill for his losses. Damon, eager not to have his astronaut-handsome looks stomped on by a burly bruiser of a collector, gambles everything on a game with Malkovich, as the powerful Russian leader of one of the biggest poker rooms in town.

Nothing here clicks for the simple reason that no one has bothered to supply Damon, the film's key player and narrator, with a convincing psychological motivation for his obsession. (And yet Landau, in a supporting role as a law professor, has been given not one but two misty-eyed speeches about how he broke his parents' hearts by not becoming a rabbi.) Damon is forced to fall back on the charm of his slow-spreading smile and the fact that he looks good in a crew-neck sweater. But for all we know, he "goes out" for poker because he thinks it's a varsity sport.

Norton is amusingly jolly and scuzzy but eventually fades from sight. Malkovich, typically flamboyant, has come up with an accent full of unexpected pops and squeaks, and he literally sprinkles chips onto the poker table. He's silly, but at least he's entertaining. (R)

Bottom Line: A poor hand

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