EmptyCurtis Hanson's own poker-playing enthusiasm gets the better of him in "Lucky You," a movie that takes you so deep into the Las Vegas world of tournament and high-stakes poker that you may never want to see a deck of cards again. The love story and character relationships get shoved to the far reaches of gaming rooms so the camera can lovingly gaze at overturned cards and mounds of chips.
Poker has proven itself a popular spectator sport on television -- at least in the short run -- but as scripted drama, where you can pretty much guess the winner of a given hand, it's dull, dull, dull. Warner Bros. is betting very little on this weekend's release, sending "Lucky You" on a suicide mission against Spidey the Third. The distributor has, correctly, guessed there is scant audience interest for an insider's look at a game millions do not play, and those who do would probably rather shuffle cards than head for the multiplex. Drew Barrymore is the film's only marquee name, but her role is decidedly secondary to that of Eric Bana, a decent actor who has yet to prove himself a star. This film does not make the case for him.
Bana plays professional gambler Huck Cheever, who floats through Vegas for the entire movie, sleeping very little and immersing himself in game after game. What passes for a plot focuses on a rivalry between him and his dad, L.C. (a preening Robert Duvall), a two-time World Series of Poker champion in town to win a third title. Huck seems to genuinely despise his father over his long-ago desertion of his mother. Nevertheless, L.C. has taught him everything he knows about cards -- except how to beat his old man.
Barrymore is Billie Offer, a would-be singer who drifts into town and catches Huck's eye. She is the sister of Suzanne (Debra Messing), who apparently is one of Huck's many exes, though that's not entirely clear. For that matter, the script by Eric Roth and Hanson is unclear about most of the relationships and backstories in its apparent eagerness to get to those poker tables.
Oddball characters pop up early in the going, the oddest being a scam artist played by Robert Downey Jr. who answers pay help lines on multiple cell phones at a deserted bar where he offers dubious personal advice to callers. The character never appears again, and the scene serves no purpose other than to watch Downey act. At least he doesn't play cards.
The movie wants to interpret the lives of its main characters through their manner of play and abilities to bluff and deceive. This means, of course, that you have to accept poker playing as a metaphor for life. Huck is told, for instance, that he should live his life the way he plays cards but play cards the way he lives life. If you can follow that line of reasoning, you may be up for the film's pretensions.
The movie soon disappears into a maelstrom of card games. The outcomes of most are predictable, but more damaging is how little emotional stake the audience has in any. Huck is such a shallow, self-pitying cad you cannot understand what Billie sees in him. The father-son dynamics are tired and banal. All peripheral characters are one-note oddities.
Technically, the film fails its one major challenge: to give life to so many scenes of men -- and an occasional woman -- sitting at tables, glaring at each other's faces and peeking at cards in a mental game of bluff. These scenes are absolutely lifeless.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures a Deuce Three/Di Novi Pictures production
Director: Curtis Hanson
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Curtis Hanson
Story by: Eric Roth
Producers: Denise Di Novi, Curtis Hanson, Carol Fenelon
Executive producer: Bruce Berman
Co-producer: Mari-Jo Winkler-Ioffreda
Director of photography: Peter Deming
Production designer: Clay A. Griffith
Music: Christopher Young
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Editors: Craig Kitson, William Kerr
Huck Cheever: Eric Bana
Billie Offer: Drew Barrymore
L.C. Cheever: Robert Duvall
Suzanne Offer: Debra Messing
Ready Eddie: Horatio Sanz
Roy: Charles Martin Smith
Lester: Saverio Guerra
Michelle: Jean Smart
Telephone Jack: Robert Downey Jr.
Running time -- 122 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13