'Runner Runner' and the Problem of Justin Timberlake

What's proven in Justin Timberlake's new gambling thriller Runner Runner is that he doesn't have that crucial movie star je ne sais quoi that demands attention.

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Though he's currently being raked over the coals for his latest album, Justin Timberlake is a talented musician. He oozes sex appeal without being sleazy, he trickles up into a fluttery falsetto without losing any of his swagger. He's also been a game and chipper — if a bit overused — host on Saturday Night Live, drawing from his old Mickey Mouse Club sketch days to hold his own against professional comedians. He also, y'know, seems like a nice guy. This is all to say that Justin Timberlake has many things going for him! So it would probably be okay if he quietly gave up this whole acting thing. Because, folks, he's just not good at it.

What's maybe worse, and what's proven in his new gambling thriller Runner Runner, is that he doesn't have that crucial movie star je ne sais quoi that demands attention, and respect. The breezy confidence and magnetism he buzzes with when he performs his music just doesn't survive the translation to film. In the handful of movies he's done so far, he seems almost embarrassingly out of his depth, giving shallow line readings with a schoolboy's earnestness. It's awkward, this 32-year-old cool guy suddenly becoming a goofy teenager. We saw it in his oddly lauded turn in The Social Network, in the gangly romantic comedy Friends with Benefits, and in the dreary sci-fi thriller In Time. But Runner Runner puts his faults on particularly garish display, being that it's a cocky male fantasy yarn about online gambling and Ponzi schemes and slick dudes out to get rich, with Timberlake at the center.

In the film, he plays a numbers whiz who gets sucked out of his reasonably low-key Princeton grad student existence and into a web of deceit and danger in Costa Rica. If you're rolling your eyes or guffawing at the idea of Justin Timberlake playing some kind of statistics genius who goes to Princeton, you're not wrong to. But it's the other side of the character that really does the poor guy in. His character, Richie Furst, was supposed to be on Wall Street making the big bucks, but then the crash happened, he lost his money, and now he's stuck in graduate school paying tuition like a chump. (I gathered that we were supposed to feel bad for this guy, who had the simple aw-shucks dream of making a ton of money in one of America's more cynical, corrupt industries, but then couldn't because the industry's cynicism and corruption led to its temporary collapse. But that's just not the most sympathetic tale, not for me anyway. I'm sure there will be guys who see Runner Runner and think that Richie got a real raw deal, but to me he's better off living a more honest existence at Princeton.) So he leaps at the chance to get back in the fast lane when a shady online gambling mogul named Ivan Block (an icy Ben Affleck) offers him a job in Costa Rica.

Richie excels at the work, and it's here that Timberlake's real limits as an actor start to show themselves in squirm-inducing ways. To play all this wheeler-dealer strutting, you'd think that Timberlake would be able to channel if not his own arrogance certainly that of the myriad music types around him who command a room the minute they walk into it. But instead all that comes across is a silly sense of "Oh, Justin Timberlake is trying to be cool right now." The whole movie is like watching a kid who misguidedly got his ear pierced over the summer walk down the hall on the first day of school.

Timberlake has exactly zero chemistry with his love interest, a bland nothing of a character played with sad eyes by the perpetually sidelined Gemma Arterton, and only a little more with his main sparring partner Mr. Affleck. Playing a cold, calculating crook with a mean streak, Affleck is pretty fun. He's menacing in the affable way that many scary guys from his native Boston can be; pulling you in close with pleasantries and then knifing you when you least expect it. It's obvious from his first frame that he's up to no good, but Affleck still plays the character with something of an arc. He could have just phoned-in this post-Argo tropical vacation, but he actually tried. Good for him.

The same can be said of the film's director, The Lincoln Lawyer's Brad Furman. There are moments in Runner Runner that feel thoughtfully constructed, like a throbbing EDM dance party at a carnival that swirls with light and a haze of danger. The film's script, by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is overloaded with snappy gambling speak and hurries along at a too-abbreviated clip, but there are glimmers of a smarter movie in there that Furman is sharp enough to tease out. There's a Princeton vs. Rutgers joke in the movie that comes out of nowhere; it earned easily the biggest laugh from the audience I was in. (That's region-specific, of course.) Despite its lame masters of the universe posturing, its dismissal of women as nothing more than sex things or victims, and its hastily resolved intrigue, Runner Runner isn't terrible. You might even enjoy it when it pops up on FX some hungover Sunday afternoon.

But hopefully by then Timberlake will have quit the movies. What began as a curious novelty has swiftly become an annoyance that's continually foisted upon us by oblivious studio executives. I know it's blunt, and probably mean, to say, but Justin Timberlake is not a good actor. He's not a movie star. Let's end the charade now and send him back to the recording studio where he belongs. I say this out of love. Really.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.