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Metro Pulse Poker Faces

Three young actors vie for attention in Rounders.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Her nipples precede her. When Gretchen Mol showed up on the cover of Vanity Fair last month with the headline, "Hollywood's New 'It' Girl," it was impossible not to wonder if the magazine had left a "T" off the front of its designation. In a sheer nightie in what one can only assume was a very cold photo studio, Mol smiles coquettishly while her chest does its best impersonation of the World Trade Center. After reading the article inside to find out who the heck Gretchen Mol is—a nice but not especially articulate young woman who is (of course) thrilled to be making movies and appearing on magazine covers rather than (of course) waiting tables—it's still the nipples that make the most impression.

So it's probably no accident that in Mol's first scene in Rounders—her big-time Hollywood movie debut—she's asleep, but her nipples aren't, jutting proudly beneath yet another thin nightgown. Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there for Mol, the most annoying element of an otherwise enjoyable film. She may be more than just this year's pretty face, but you can't tell from this. (Her next chance to show otherwise will be in Woody Allen's much-anticipated Celebrity. But knowing Allen, he didn't cast her for her love of Russian literature.)

In Rounders, Mol is Jo, the law-student girlfriend of law-student protagonist Mike McDermott (Matt Damon). Mike is putting himself through school by playing high-stakes poker, but as the film starts, he's about to get his comeuppance. He cockily puts his entire $30,000 savings on one big game with a shady Russian nicknamed Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, with an amusingly prissy Cossack accent), and he loses. Devastated, he promises Jo he'll quit playing altogether.

The story really begins when Mike's childhood pal Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison after serving time for some unspecified offense. Worm, who taught Mike how to play cards years ago, is a con man, always looking for an angle. He plays poker well enough to make money without cheating, but there's no fun in that for him. He also happens to owe about $25,000 to some very important people. He's in trouble. Will Mike re-enter the shadowy world of money and rounders (poker lingo for professional card players) to help out his buddy? Will Jo leave him if he does? What do you think?

As long as the film stays focused on Mike and Worm and poker, which is most of the time, it's a good yarn. The arcane rituals and diverse phyla of card players make for great anthropology, and the movie has a solid supporting cast to flesh it out (besides Malkovich, there's John Turturro, Famke Janssen, and Michael Rispoli).

And as a character study of a hotshot player who got scared off his game but longs to return, Rounders is mostly convincing. Damon has the right combination of charisma and acting chops to make it as a real-deal movie star. In Good Will Hunting, he was hard to believe because he and Ben Affleck had written a fundamentally unbelievable character. Here, at least when he sticks to cards, he seems like a natural, recalling both Tom Cruise in The Color of Money and, more distantly, Paul Newman in The Hustler. Damon doesn't have Cruise's air of mercurial mischief, but he's a better actor. His biggest obstacle is that he's almost too good-looking; his teeth belong in a toothpaste ad, not in a real person's mouth.

As more or less the straight guy, though, Damon is inevitably upstaged by Norton, who dives into his grubby role and rolls around in it. It's a kinetic performance that might land Norton another supporting actor nomination (more deservedly than his overpraised turn in Primal Fear a few years back). He plays Worm as the kind of guy you want to like even though you know he'll always do the wrong thing when the chips are down. Norton tweaks his endearing smile—which he used to great puppy-dog effect in Woody Allen's Everybody Says I Love You—to reflect Worm's amorality and instability. In Rounders, the smile comes at all the wrong times, a nervous tic that always presages disaster.

Director John Dahl puts his command of noir style to good use, giving us game rooms lit in dark golds and overhead flourescents. In one early scene, stop lights dangle above a dark New York street, the poles and light brackets shadowed so all you see are red beacons floating dolefully in space. Rounders is a step forward for Dahl, whose earlier thrillers (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), while stylish and skillful, relied heavily on plot contrivances. Rounders is more straightforward and sober-minded.

Too sober-minded, in fact, in some important ways. An entire subplot about Mike trying to decide whether to stay in law school is silly, especially when the school dean (an awkwardly paternal Martin Landau) sagely counsels him to do whatever he's best at—as if professional card playing were some Zen-like calling. And Mol gives Damon little to work with in generating any relationship tension. She's pretty, distractingly so, but otherwise uninteresting. It doesn't help that the script gives her big words like "obsequious" to over-enunciate in a vain attempt to show us how smart Jo is. Mol may grow into an actress someday, but at the moment she's just the latest reminder Hollywood is still run by aging men with a thing for bombshell blondes and perky...well, you know.

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