All In: The Poker Movie: Film Review

All In: The Poker Movie Poster - P
Informative rundown of poker's mainstream explosion and legal attempts to tame it.

Filmmaker Douglas Tirola sheds light on poker's appeal and the legal fight to tame the game.

Chronicling the highs and lows of poker's recent resurgence, Douglas Tirola's All In is well-titled when it comes to interviewees -- packed with World Series winners, sports writers, and the odd movie star, it makes the game out to be not only a big-deal trend but a key to the American spirit. Informative and lively if low on cinematic value, the doc will play well on the small screen.

Newbies will find no clues here to the rules of the game, but Tirola and historians as pedigreed as Doris Kearns Goodwin offer a gloss of its history, emphasizing its popularization in New Orleans and on Mississippi ships where gamblers could find planters with a full year's income in their pockets. After WWII soldiers were given playing cards to help kill the time, the game became a commonplace weekly event in post-war homes.

The professional gambler was an icon in fiction (and, in the case of Amarillo Slim, the real world), but poker waned as an institutionalized sport to the point where, in 1991, almost every major casino had closed down its poker room. Two decades later, poker was on TV nonstop and a seemingly inescapable phenomenon. What happened?

Tirola finds turning points, like the cult film Rounders (whose star Matt Damon discusses the game's appeal) and the "Hole Cam," which enabled TV broadcasts to, for the first time, make the game interesting to the home viewer. And then there was the internet.

Though the doc has little in the way of dramatic pull, it finds some intrigue in the explosion of poker websites and attempts by the U.S. government to limit online gambling. Competition between upstart sites and major Las Vegas institutions, definitions of gambling as opposed to games of skill, and the grease-ability of legislators palms are discussed, all of interest even to viewers who don't know Phil Hellmuth from Scotty Nguyen. Tirola's attempt to use Chris Moneymaker's rags-to-riches tale as an overarching structural device is less successful, though when he finally chronicles his shocking victory at the 2003 World Series, the story is compelling.

Editor Robert Greene, given interviews with so many knowledgeable subjects, can't bear to shortchange any of them. Every major point the film makes is restated in different words by five or ten different speakers, affording viewers the chance to count the logos, on hats and polo shirts, with which each pro shills for the online-gaming outfit of his choice. At least one of those web domains has now been seized by the FBI -- but nobody ever said being on the run from the law is bad for a gambler's mystique.

Opens: Friday, March 23 (4th Row Films Distribution)
Production Company: 4th Row Films
Director: Douglas Tirola
Producers: Susan Bedusa, Robert Greene, Douglas Tirola
Executive producers: Amy Brennan
Music: Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Editor: Robert Greene
No rating, 109 minutes