In the recently released Rounders, two obsessive card sharks, Mike (Matt Damon) and Worm (Edward Norton), hustle their way through the sleazy underworld of New York City's illegal poker circuit. John Dahl's film, brilliantly acted, offers an atypical view of addiction: Rather than being cured of or broken by his gambling problem, Mike learns to harness his lust for winning - but only after he incurs an ass-whupping and a $25,000 debt. On the other hand, Worm can't resist cheating, and as he screws up, he drags Mike down with him. Watching the pair navigate this dangerous game, we learn just how fine the distinction between friendship and parasitism - as well as compulsion and destruction - can be. Sometimes, the movie suggests, the key to survival is knowing when to fold - not just on a hand, but on someone you love.
Damon and Norton's onscreen rapport is so perfect you wonder if they'd met in a past life. When Interview got the pair on the phone, they cut us in on the deal.
MATT DAMON: Edward! What's up? It's been a little while. How are you doing, man?
EDWARD NORTON: I'm doing pretty well. You?
MD: Good, good. So Interview wants us to talk about Rounders, right?
EN: Let's do it.
MD: What did you like about the script the first time you read it?
EN: At first, I thought the story was heading toward a conclusion where Mike, your character, learns his lesson, moves into adult life, becomes a lawyer, and takes his poker skills into the courtroom. And that's exactly what doesn't happen.
MD: It probably won't be the most popular choice, either, given the stigma attached to poker. But poker is not like craps or blackjack; it's a game of skill. Like I say in the movie to Gretchen Mol [who plays Mike's disillusioned girlfriend], Why do you think the same six guys end up at the final table at the world series of poker every year? Are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas? No, it's because they've got skills.
EN: Now that said, there is definitely an addictive element to the game. It may involve a lot more skill than other gambling games, but there's an adrenaline rush involved in it; it's a drug experience. When you sit down at one of these tables, especially if you are in over your head in a big game, it's a heavy, sweaty, highly plugged-in experience.
You know, one thing I like about the movie is it doesn't really take place in the casinos; it takes place in the world of underground poker, which isn't at all glamorous. It's seedy, sexy, a little rough. If there is any glamour, I guess it's the renegade, get-by-on-your-wits kind of lifestyle, which I think is still a big part of the American romance.
MD: That's right. This is really a coming-of-age story with that world as a backdrop. After Worm has lost and just totally dicked Mike over, he says, "At least you are rounding again - you should thank me for that." And he means it. He knows he has really given Mike something, because even though Mike is deep in the hole financially and he's got all these serious problems, at least he is doing what he should be doing.
EN: I think the message of the movie is that in anyone's life, there are those moments when you have to decide between safety and risk, and your dreams inevitably lie on the other side of risk. I'm sure a lot of us have felt that way about acting - there came a moment when we just had to roll the dice on whatever talent we had. That's what I like about the movie: Essentially it says you will never realize your talents until you move toward the risk.
MD: Well said.
ED: Thanks, Matty.
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