I normally try to set April aside to talk indulgently about stuff I really like, because it’s the month with my birthday in it. You know, a theme is as good as any other theme. I haven’t really done that this month, like I didn’t dig down to make an ostensible show of picking out five of my absolute favourites I wanted to babble about self-indulgently. Still, this is the last Story Pile for April, so why not.
Let’s talk about a movie that I freaking love.
It’s also kinda bad.
When I say the movie is kind of bad, I only kind of mean it. It’s not a movie I’d recommend to my friends, because it has basically an all-male cast and its full of intense consideration of the mechanical play of the game Poker as a culture and a lifestyle. It doesn’t have cute lesbians kissing or an interesting discourse on gender or an awesome action sequence or anything that I’d normally consider of interest ‘to you.’ And the story despite having a really robust structure, doesn’t take the turns you expect it to, and communicates a view on morality that I find a bit refreshing but at the same time is a bit bleaker than I’m comfortable recommending. It isn’t even a dark film, it ends with our plucky sportsboy hero Mike on his way to his dream, after all. It’s just…
This is a movie where the protagonist comes through for a friend, who screws him over, and then that’s all you see of the friend. It’s got scenes of a man swallowing his pride, begging for help from a friend, and hearing that friend say no on the most sensible reasons. It’s a movie with a love interest who checks out of the story because she is literally an impediment. It’s a movie with a cast of pretty good actors and actresses that nonetheless doesn’t let any of them carry a scene as well as Martin Landau in his scenes, the constant Narration by Damon’s Mike, or the actual interplay of observing games of poker.
The thing about most game movies is they try to construct elaborate scenarios for the tension of single moments of play. Like, for example, the shootouts at the finals of Mighty Ducks, or the shootouts in Mighty Ducks 2, or even the shootouts in Mighty Ducks 3. These are all movie moments we can remember and appreciate, as they boil all the tension of the game into single, discrete, observable (easily shot) thing that doesn’t tend to need the audience to be able to unpick the strategic importance of things in the game they’re watching. We win if they make this shot, we lose if they don’t, and aren’t you having fun being along for this ride?
Poker movies, such as movies like Maverick and other Westerns, and almost every anime that bothers to show characters playing poker, because god help us all, tend to make poker about having a Gooder Hand and that’s it. It represents the game as a single hand where great players just get better hands and that’s all there is to it. It’s kinda adorable and also really stupid because it suggests that the person telling the story doesn’t actually know how you play poker, and then that they’re okay with it because they’re not going to have to show their work to anyone else who understands poker. The game is kinda like a Rubik’s Cube, it’s there to show you someone is smart or cool as a signal, and therefore doesn’t really show you the game as much as use the game as a decal on a character.
Rounders doesn’t do that; Rounders is about showing you poker games, the long, grinding experience of playing ten, twenty, fifteen, thirty hands of poker over an hour, of playing and learning and relearning each other, of the rules-legal plays rounders can make. It’s a game that shows Poker as not a game of hands but a game of hours. It’s a game of endurance and making the fewest mistakes and grinding out your wins bit by bit by bit.
Rounders doesn’t really show you actual top-level play of single hands (except in a few instances). It shows you instead people playing games, and makes the game of poker itself part of the game. And then, when the time comes to show off whether or not they know what they’re doing, Rounders does its homework.
The final hand of Rounders, from the audiences’ perspective, is the natural, obvious moment. It’s important. You can tell it’s important. But in the context of the players, in the moment of the story, it’s not racing a countdown clock like in Basketball (though time is a factor). It’s a moment when someone saw an opportunity and wanted to dive on it. It’s a gamble. It’s tense and it’s stressful and it’s fucking excellent because even if you believe wholeheartedly that Mike’s going to win it, the music and the acting and the scene makes the focus of that not about whether or not he can win this hand, but how can he win this hand well. It takes poker and it amplifies it for the audience of a movie.
Okay, let’s address something. Teddy’s tell is dumb. Teddy’s tell is incredibly dumb.
For those who haven’t seen the movie (and like, spoilers, I guess), Teddy KGB is a Russian Mobster played by John Malkovich just inventing new accents as the movie goes on. He is the End Boss of the movie. He starts out just wiping out Mike’s entire bankroll like it’s nothing to him and continues on happily for the rest of the movie until the end. He eats oreos at the table, and he plays with them while he deliberates over his raises and checks. If he has a good hand, he consumes the cookie, if not, he sets it down.
This is breathtakingly bad poker.
Not only is it a really obvious tell that people could observe over the course of play, but it was obvious in a way that draws attention to itself. In the moment when everyone is paying as much attention to you as possible, you make them wait to watch your little tell-giving ritual. It is stupid. There is no way this sort of tell could last on a guy who is running a whole poker den and playing and winning.
This tell is pretty much perfect for a movie.
See, the thing with the movie is we don’t see the movie as Mike sees it. He’s in the chair, he’s looking at his hands, he’s looking at Teddy, he’s focusing on the game. We, the audience, are being shown the scene, the setting, the voices, the faces, we’re breaking up the experience, and we’re only watching Teddy play six or seven hands of poker in total. We don’t have to agonise over this tell, we only see it once or twice. What’s more, it needs to be, as a chunk of story, sized large enough that we, as an audience can notice it without being shown it.
Mike, despite being a narrator, doesn’t tell you what Teddy’s tell is. He just tells you he spotted it, communicates to Teddy that he did it, and Teddy gets it. The narration goes onto why he did it, and the story moves on, now with the stakes somewhat raised (you can’t read Teddy as easily any more, and the time is brought up again). There’s no need to zoom in on an eyebrow or a wince or something that might accidentally get into the film. By making the tell really deliberate, the story has control over it.
So yeah, it’s a dumb tell but it’s one suited to the media. It’s there for you, the audience, not for the characters.
Still, it would be a disservice to pretend this movie is perfect. This movie has both Gretchen Mol and Famke Janssen in it and they have as much to do as a phone. Gretchen could literally be replaced with a motivational poster that Mike periodically looks at and feels sad, because he knows he’s not following the good intentions of the poster. She’s a non factor, and while I greatly appreciate the movie didn’t do anything bad with her I’d have greatly preferred for this movie to feature a woman doing something.
Famke Janssen is the real crime, though. She’s so effortlessly cool in this movie, and she doesn’t ever have to suffer anything. In game movies it’s a common trope to show off a sympathetic character losing to make the stakes higher. You’ll see that all the time, even to the point where if you see the heroic secondary character facing off against anyone you can immediately identify who the next person our hero takes out will be. Especially in movies, where you don’t have time to give everyone the spotlight.
When Janssen shows up you might be morbidly worried she’s going to be the thing that raises the stakes in act 3, another person dragged into Worm’s mistakes via Mike, and then he’s not just playing for himself, but playing for her and that might be the darkest hour? But no.
No, she shows up, she plays poker, she runs her own poker joint, she’s cool and she’s badass and she makes jokes and oozes style and takes a risk or two based on her appreciation of Mike… and that’s it.
As for other ways this movie is Definitely Not Perfect? There is also kinda a homophobic joke (or jokes, it’s hard to read some of the table talk) and there are a bunch of abused sex workers in the background, the type of background object you can even forget are in the movie. That sucks. It’s reflective of the culture and the time but that doesn’t change the fact it sucks. For a story that bends itself so much around the game it sucks that it slips down into that.
Rounders was made on a budget of $12 million. You could make another Rounders for the cost of six episodes of The Blacklist. You could even cast Famke Janssen as the main character and do like an Ocean’s 11 thing with her. It’d rule.
Man, I love this movie. I love this movie even though I spend giant chunks of the time when I watch it skipping around to specific moments of play.