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There are compulsive gamblers, and then there’s the rest of us — a fact that Walk to Vegas embraces with a genial spirit. The best thing about the movie, the first feature directed by actor Eric Balfour, is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Co-scripters Vincent Van Patten and Steve Alper get the insane thrill ride of high-stakes wagers, and the cast, led by Van Patten, is in sync with the serious loopiness of the enterprise at hand: a 280-mile trek from the San Fernando Valley to Sin City, for a seven-figure jackpot.
Between the film’s promising opening hand and its winning twist of a payoff, not everything clicks, yet amid the boys-will-be-boys goofiness, it’s easy to forgive the parts that don’t work, if not the largely decorative role of the few onscreen women.
The film draws upon not just the screenwriter-star’s gambling experiences and poker know-how — Van Patten has more than 15 years under his belt as a commentator on World Poker Tour— but also his life as a Hollywood insider. He and co-star James Van Patten, sons of the late Dick Van Patten (Eight Is Enough), grew up in the biz. The screenplay is peppered with wry references to the industry, especially through James’ character, Carl, a former flack for the almost famous. (He worked with Stallone. Frank Stallone.)
The real-life brothers play siblings in the comedy. Vincent is Duke, who, finding himself broke after his acting career disintegrates — concisely communicated via a montage of infomercial gigs, headshots and B-movie one-sheets — has found his groove as host of a profitable poker game with his wife, KC (Vincent’s real-life spouse, soap opera actress Eileen Davidson, in a role that could have been more substantial). The hot-ticket game eventually moves from their San Fernando Valley ranch house to a Beverly Hills club’s backroom, where young British director Sebastian (played to smug perfection by Ross McCall) quickly commandeers the friendly game, intent on weeding out the amateurs and upping the stakes. Duke isn’t happy about it, but he and Carl (a diehard gambler who dresses in drag for three months on a 50-grand dare) can’t resist the days-long tourneys and crazy side bets that ensue. And Duke doesn’t bat an eye when Sebastian ups the ante by offering a cool million if the former actor can walk to Las Vegas in seven days (wearing a suit, naturally).
A cartoonishly motley crew of hardcore gamblers gather around this venture, following Duke’s progress from the air-conditioned luxury of Sebastian’s RV: a happy-go-lucky grifter (James Kyson), a beneficiary of a bottomless family fortune (Danny Pardo), the appropriately nicknamed Angry Jim (the terrific character actor Don Stark) and a dot-com millionaire turned wannabe ventriloquist (Paul Walter Hauser). A TV star with substance-abuse problems (Lucas Bryant) drifts in and out of the action, and Seinfeld‘s John O’Hurley appears briefly as a hedge-fund billionaire, who’s responsible for some of Duke’s most dramatic ups and downs on the financial front.
Balfour and editor Paul Buhl establish a brisk pace in the early going, but can’t quite maintain the energy during Duke’s schlep through the desert, which begins at the movie’s halfway point. With some comic setups falling flat — the intended hilarity of a round of charades in a sandstorm, for example, never quite materializes — the journey sometimes feels like a long haul. But Chad Lowe’s brief turn as a county sheriff with showbiz delusions is a well-written, terrifically played highlight. (Jennifer Tilly cameos as her poker-savvy self, as do professional players Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari.)
The screenplay leans heavily on Duke’s voiceover narration — which is less of a problem than it might be because the combo of flavorful, slangy language and Van Patten’s husky voice lends the proceedings a hard-boiled zing. (Although at the film’s world premiere in Palm Springs, the amped music soundtrack was often at war with the voiceover and dialogue.)
With its mostly unflashy camerawork and low-key production design (the exception being Sebastian’s aptly garish white-and-magenta mansion), the low-budget movie is anything but pretentious. Even when the story feels strained, the chemistry among the performers has oomph as their characters taunt one another, celebrate big wins, ride out setbacks and mastermind double-crosses. And the uneven shenanigans sail home smoothly with an exhilarating and ultra-satisfying switcheroo.
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (Local Spotlight)
Production companies: Van Patten Brothers Entertainment and Wonderstar Productions in association with Big Block Media Holdings and WPT Studios USA
Cast: Vincent Van Patten, Ross McCall, Paul Walter Hauser, Eileen Davidson, James Van Patten, James Kyson, Willie Garson, Lucas Bryant, Don Stark, Danny Pardo, John O’Hurley, Chad Lowe, Jennifer Tilly
Director: Eric Balfour
Screenwriters: Vincent Van Patten, Steve Alper
Story by Vincent Van Patten
Producers: Vincent Van Patten, James Van Patten, Kim Waltrip, Adam Weinraub, Mark R. Harris, Dylan Vox
Executive producers: Adam Weinraub, Kara Weinraub, Joseph Siprut, Denise DuBarry Hay, Robert Fitzpatrick, Seven Volpone, Scott Prisand, Jamie Bendell, Michael Speyer, Vineyard Point
Director of photography: Christopher Gallo
Production designer: Caitlin Laingen
Costume designer: Brittany Ann Cormack
Editor: Paul Buhl
Music: Bret Mazur
Casting director: J.C. Cantu
Sales: Scott Moesta
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