Poker-faced drama is a few cards short of a full deck
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Cast: Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, Robert Duvall
The question at hand is this: Why would white-hot acting stud Eric Bana follow up his Academy Award-caliber Steven Spielberg drama Munich with a seemingly inconsequential romantic comedy like Lucky You? There are actually several possible answers to the question, but it should first be noted that Lucky You only seems like an inconsequential romantic comedy—an impression no doubt enhanced by some rather misleading television commercials.
Lucky You actually boasts a solid behind-the-scenes pedigree. It's directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile) and is written by Eric Roth (who penned Munich, as well as Ali, Forrest Gump and several other Oscar-bait flicks). But the film has been gathering dust on studio shelves for more than a year and has finally been released on the same weekend as summertime juggernaut Spider-Man 3—not exactly a vote of confidence on the part of the distributors. There are plenty of reasons why a studio would let a film sit on its shelves for so long. It isn't necessarily a reflection of the film's quality either. More likely, it's a sign that a studio has no idea how to market a particular film. That's probably the case with Lucky You—which would explain those stereotypical rom-com commercials emphasizing the relationship between would-be cabaret singer Drew Barrymore and struggling poker champ Eric Bana.
Lucky You is a well-made film. Perhaps a little too well made for what it is. The studio obviously wanted a lightweight romance set against the colorful, neon-lit backdrop of Las Vegas. What they got was a sober, heavily researched look inside the world of high-stakes poker tournaments. Set in 2003, Lucky You catches the pro poker world on the cusp of change. Poker was starting to become a celebrity sport. Pioneering professionals were dying off, giving way to cocky young frat boys who had learned their skills playing countless hours of online Texas Hold 'Em. Tournaments were suddenly being broadcast on television, and were in the process of moving from old-school haunts like downtown Vegas' Binion’s to glitzy new resorts like the Rio.
In this evolving world, we are introduced to Huck Cheever (Bana), a poker-faced professional who can't seem to catch a break. He's trying to raise the $10,000 it's going to take to get a seat at the upcoming World Poker Championships. The problem? His hot-headed style of play and his lack of discipline have him on a losing streak. That seems to change when he meets new-gal-in-town Billie (Barrymore, in full-on cute mode). Being such an expert at reading people's faces, Huck has soon got Billie's number. By day's end, he's bedded her and “borrowed” a thousand dollars from her wallet—which he manages to lose. This behavior doesn't bode well for the future of their relationship (or Huck's chances of entering the Poker Championships either). With the clock ticking, Huck's got to figure out a way to win the girl and the tournament (not necessarily in that order).
Roth's script is meticulously researched, and shows off a perfect ear for the culture of poker. But it isn't much interested in the peripherals. There are a handful of colorful characters (Robert Downey Jr., Charles Martin Smith, Horatio Sanz), a couple moments of humor, a few minutes worth of romance and a dash of father/son drama. (Huck's pappy—Robert Duvall, lending some class to the joint—is a poker player as well, and the two do not get along exactly.) Despite such trailer-friendly material, the vast majority of Lucky You's two hour-plus runtime is taken up by poker, poker and more poker. It's a lot of poker for one movie. And unless you've got the signature edition Doyle Brunson poker table permanently set up in your den, this movie is probably going to bore you. If you don't even know who Doyle Brunson is, then this definitely isn't the movie for you.
Those looking for the cute romantic comedy advertised in the commercials are going to be greatly disappointed. It ain't here. Instead, Roth and Hanson have created a mostly serious, almost John Ford-style portrait of a vanishing world in which stoic men (and the occasional woman) battle against each other in a green-felt world of luck, skill and tightly-bottled emotion. Outside of the poker table, characters psychoanalyze each other, offering up endless card-based metaphors. (“You play cards like you should live your life, and you live your life like you should play cards,” says one sage character. ... Uh, thanks, I'll get right on that.) If you're a poker fan, happy watching endless hours of Texas Hold 'Em on cable TV, feel free to ante up. If you don't know your turn from your river, I suggest you deal yourself out of this one.
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