- - Friday, October 4, 2013

The defining feature of the Faust legend is that the one who makes the deal with the devil pays with his soul. Without the consequence of damnation, the story loses a bit of its moral heft. So if Faust were not carried off to hell by Mephistopheles, but instead, for example, dimed out the devil to the FBI and escaped in a private jet with the devil’s foxy girlfriend, a literate audience might legitimately feel a bit puzzled, if not robbed outright. But then “Runner Runner,” a farcical reboot of Faust set in the seamy world of offshore online gambling, isn’t exactly a thinking person’s movie.

The script plays like the orphaned child of two mini-genres that have long run their course: movies about “the Net” and movies about whiz kid gamblers. There are some references to the 2008 financial meltdown, but these seem tossed in for the sake of explaining why our tragic hero might be short of cash and looking for a satanic master to purchase his soul, even on a temporary basis.

Justin Timberlake plays Richie Furst (a fiendishly clever moniker that suggests wealth and Faust in a single breath), a graduate student in finance at Princeton. He’s a chastened survivor of the market meltdown, and one who did not have enough chips in the big game to survive the shakeout. Richie is paying for his education by working as a tout for an online gambling site. When he’s discovered at this, he’s faced with the choice of giving up his side job or losing his spot in his prestigious academic program.

This leads him to wager his entire $17,000 life savings on a night of online poker to raise his tuition money. He’s baffled by the way he loses, and a mathematical analysis of his games shows that there’s a bug built into the program that allows insiders to cheat. He jets to Costa Rica to track down Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the owner of a shady gambling empire that operates outside the scope of U.S. law.

Ivan tempts Richie with all the blandishments an ultrarich expatriate has to offer — yachts, mansions and lavish parties with club music and a seemingly endless supply of slinky courtesans. Before long, Richie’s running a fair piece of the business, and adding blackmail and bribery to his quantitative skill set. Richie is being groomed as a protege, and as a potential love interest for Ivan’s somewhat neglected girlfriend Rebecca (Gemma Arterton). But it’s hard to escape the sense, although the otherwise brilliant Richie does for quite some time, that he’s being set up for a fall.

Mr. Affleck brings a kind of stolid sleaziness to his portrayal of Ivan, who comes across as a long-form version of the actor’s turn as a Mephistophelian broker in the excellent “Boiler Room.” Mr. Timberlake is less likeable here than usual. He imparts discordant notes of petulance and entitlement to Richie, a character whose raw calculating power and survival skills seem to rule out whining as an option. The supporting cast is more than solid, including John Heard as Richie’s deadbeat dad, and Anthony Mackie as an FBI agent who is determined to bring Ivan down, and willing to sacrifice Richie to do it.

What could have been a serviceable thriller is marred by a profusion of plot points that are at best unlikely, and often make no sense at all. The filmmakers seem to hope that pure kinesis will prove enough of a distraction to audiences who might otherwise stop to pick apart the loose threads of the story.

★★ 

TITLE: “Runner Runner”

CREDITS: Directed by Brad Furman; written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien.

RATING: R for language, violence, sexual situations

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS