A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Rounders is a 1998 movie in which Matt Damon must choose between living the whirlwind life of a high-stakes poker player or continue attending law school with his long-term girlfriend. There's frequent profanity, including regular use of "f--k." Topless dancers are shown performing in a strip club; in the next scene, one of the strippers is shown on the verge of performing oral sex on a customer. Characters are beaten up and bloodied by poker players they're trying to con as well as by lackeys in the Russian mob. Reference made to one of the lead characters getting beaten up as a child by his abusive father. Offhand jokes reference one of the characters getting raped while in prison. There's drinking and smoking. Overall the movie explores the theme of whether it's better to pursue the safety and stability of a regular career or to throw caution to the winds to pursue one's passion and talents. This theme, coupled with the mature content, make this best for older teens and adults.
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What's the story?
After losing thousands of dollars in a high-stakes poker game against a Russian mob boss (John Malkovich), Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) swears off poker for good in ROUNDERS. He earns a living driving a delivery truck while attending law school, and lives with his law school girlfriend (Gretchen Mol). But when his lifelong best friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison, Mike begins to feel the temptation to get back into gambling, and when a former lackey of Worm's who has since started working form the Russian mob comes looking to collect the $15,000 he is owed, Mike decides to get back in, in part to help his friend, but also because he loves the thrill of poker. They have five days to win the money Worm owes, and Mike must choose not only between law school or poker, but also between sticking up for a lifelong friend who now seems to have no problem conning him and everyone else around him, or going out on his own to pursue his real passion: being the greatest at poker.
Is it any good?
This is one of those movies where you know what to expect within the first five minutes. Shots of jowly middle-aged men playing poker against a deceptively clean-cut Matt Damon, who provides plenty of voiceovers concerning poker, the characters around him, and how poker is some kind of metaphor for human existence. A choice between unhappy stability or the chaos inherent in what Joseph Campbell called "following your bliss." It's the '90s, so everyone is edgy, cynical, and worldwise, filled with insights like, "You don't watch the cards, you watch the player." Mobsters are defined by the cats they kick or the Oreos they eat. And everyone's a loser in this hard-luck world.
That said, for pure entertainment, Rounders is enjoyable on its own terms. The noir and gambling tropes are expected and respected in each scene. It's dated, but not in a way that makes it a relic of a bygone era. And the acting in the secondary roles delivered by Malkovitch, John Turturro, and Martin Landau gives a depth to the movie that would not be there with less-talented actors. It doesn't break any new ground, but there's enough to Rounders to be entertaining and engaging for older teens and adults.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about voiceovers in Rounders. This movie makes frequent use of voiceovers, in which the lead character explains the nuances of high-stakes poker, as well as the backstory of many of the characters. Did these voiceovers make the film easier to understand, or could the story have been told without them?
How do some of the characters embody different ideas and belief systems, such as the lead character's best friend, girlfriend, poker mentor, law professor? How do they highlight the film's theme of choosing between what you want to do in life versus what you feel obligated to do?
Did the sex and violence of the movie seem relevant to the overall story, or did it seem gratuitous?
- In theaters: September 11, 1998
- On DVD or streaming: August 23, 2011
- Cast: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol
- Director: John Dahl
- Studio: Lionsgate
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 121 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: Pervasive strong language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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