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Rounders (1998)

September 12th, 2007 · 8 Comments

“Miramax is brilliant at publicizing its successes, but it’s even more brilliant at burying its failures,” said Dennis Rice, their former president of marketing. Miramax Films was notorious for test screening its movies – often in malls in New Jersey – and barely releasing the ones that scored poorly. Some went straight to video, even those with major stars. Here’s a look at some of the studio’s B-sides, bombs and greatest misses.

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Synopsis
“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker,” Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) narrates as he gathers his bankroll and heads down to an underground poker game in New York. Putting “three stacks of high society” [$30,000] in law school tuition on the line, Mike blows it against an Oreo munching Russian outfit guy known as Teddy KGB (John Malkovich).

Nine months later, Mike makes ends by driving a truck for his mentor Joey Knish (John Turturro) while attending City Law University. He makes an impression on a group of poker playing judges (including Martin Landau) by reading their hands. But his law student girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) believes Mike should use his poker skills to calculate odds and read people in a courtroom, not waste it playing cards.

Mike picks up his childhood friend Worm (Edward Norton) from prison. Worm is a card hustler who uses any means at his disposal to win, including cheating. Mike extends Worm a line of credit at a club managed by fellow rounder Petra (Famke Janssen), which Worm is desperate to burn through to make up for $25,000 he owes to a loan shark. Mike agrees to partner with Worm to get his friend paid up, culminating in a rematch with Teddy KGB.

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Production history
David Levien & Brian Koppelman had been friends since they were teenagers, and planned to write a movie together. Levien received a call one night from Koppelman, who had just lost every dime he had (about $750) in an underground poker game in Manhattan. He told Levien they had to write a movie about this. Working in a cramped basement, they wrote Rounders. Agents they sent it to passed, feeling their script was overwritten and not believable.

An assistant named Tracy Falco pulled the script out of the slush pile and recommended it to her boss, the late Ted Demme. Demme walked it into Miramax Films, who quickly attached director John Dahl. Dahl felt the script read like The Hustler. Instead of making a visually spectacular movie, he wanted the focus to be on the characters. With a budget of only $12 million, studio chairman Harvey Weinstein helped attract a world class cast.

Barely two years after Koppelman had called Levien with the idea, Rounders was shooting in New York. Good Will Hunting had just hit theaters, and Miramax anticipated the film would be along the same lines, a date movie. When it turned out not to be, the studio dumped it, focusing their marketing might on Shakespeare In Love instead. The film ended up grossing only $23 million at the U.S. box office.

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Opinion
I can’t express in three paragraphs how awesome this movie is. Rounders is a minor masterpiece. Everything you could ask for in a movie – fantastic script, perfect casting, sophisticated direction – this one pulls off in spades. It recalls classics like The Hustler, while staying ahead of the curve at all times. If I could write any movie in existence, without space or time being an object, this one would be in my top five.

The world created in the script is seductive. It’s a world of locked doors and clever lingo and it never ceases to fascinate. The vernacular alone is intoxicating: “Worm and I fall into our old rhythm like Clyde Frazier and Pearl Monroe. We bring out all the old school tricks, stuff that would never play in the city. Signaling, chip placing, trapping. We even run the old best hand play.” The material stays ahead of the audience, as opposed to the other way around.

What a cast. Damon, Norton, Turturro, Famke Janssen, Landau, John Fucking Malkovich. Gretchen Mol takes what could have been an appendage and does great work. Dahl keeps the mood understated, employing a classic look and a low-key jazz score. Instead of trying to cash in on the TV poker frenzy, this film came out five years before the fad and may have helped create the frenzy. Whether you’re a Texas Hold Em fan or not, I cannot recommend this film enough.

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“Even if the movie were just great dialogue, great performances, and an honest director, it would still be worth seeing … it achieves more by maneuvering into the unseen cracks and sleazy poetry of the world it shows us, and by its director’s sincerity,” writes Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid.

Gary Tooze at DVDBeaver calls Rounders, “A guilty pleasure which I have seen about 5 times now, I must recommend. More underplayed than most of Hollywood’s current cultural Drano.”

“This film is worth seeing for any sports enthusiast, anyone who likes a comeback story, or anyone who appreciates a film that teaches them about a world they do not know or understand. Rounders is easily the best poker film ever,” writes TC Candler at Independent Critics.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Gangsters and hoodlums · Master and pupil · Sports

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Burbanked // Sep 12, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    I LOVE this movie. You’re right – the script is truly amazing and even makes the hackneyed device of a voice over fresh and interesting again. As only a fair-to-middling poker player myself, I watch this movie and and convince myself that I could pull this stuff off, too. THAT’s the power of truly immersive filmmaking!

  • 2 Jeremy // Sep 13, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    I agree. This is a fantastic little film that gets better each year. The whole cast is fantastic and I absolutely agree with this statement, “Gretchen Mol takes what could have been an appendage and does great work.” I always have really admired her work and I am glad you made a note about it…great post, very cool film.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Sep 14, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Alan: Johnny Chan, Chris Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth and Chris Moneymaker have an audio commentary track on the DVD. I’m sure they have this movie to thank for a lot of their winnings. When you know everybody’s hands, its easy to believe you too can go to Vegas and become the king of poker!

    Jeremy: Gretchen Mol is an underrated actress. I can see her getting a hit TV series a decade from now and people wondering where she’s been for so long. She played this law school girlfriend part without making her too cold, or too cutesy. It was just right.

    Thanks for your spot-on comments, guys!

    Pat: You should give Rounders another shot. It sounds like you might have either slept through it or been so angered by Rush Hour that your whole moviegoing year was ruined.

    I truly believe it’s a modern classic. Ask yourself if Damon, Norton, Turturro, Landau and Malkovich would all be appearing in a low budget movie if the material wasn’t terrific.

  • 4 Piper // Sep 14, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Joe Valdez sez: I can’t express in three paragraphs how awesome this movie is. Rounders is a minor masterpiece. Everything you could ask for in a movie – fantastic script, perfect casting, sophisticated direction – this one pulls off in spades. It recalls classics like The Hustler, while staying ahead of the curve at all times.

    Piper sez: Whaaaa? I can barely remember this movie that’s how forgettable it was. I remember it trying to be something but in the end being nothing. The scenes with Malkovich feel forced. To compare it to The Hustler? Man. That’s hard.

  • 5 Piper // Sep 17, 2007 at 7:46 am

    I never saw Rush Hour but even the thought of it might have tainted this movie. I will see it again.

  • 6 Janell // Sep 19, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    This is a hidden classic. I still quote it. Someone will ask what I am doing. I reply, “Haaaaaaanging around.”

  • 7 pat // Sep 20, 2007 at 12:12 am

    I agree, very good movie, second favorite Dahl movie after Red Rock West. Bill Simmons published an e mail exchange with the director/writers (at ESPN.com, probably still there in the archives) in which he asked about a scene I felt was a little too much, where Damon walks in on the professor’s poker game and reads everyone’s cards in about 30 seconds. They said that actually happened with some great poker player they knew.

  • 8 Dan // Nov 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Although I didn’t think the film was quite as good as you I still love the Poker in the film. Probably the best film for Poker ever made. Matt Damon is good but I’ve always had a problem with Edward Norton’s disappearance act towards the end.

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