Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Not in the cards

I remember being reading a flyer posted in a local coffee shop here in Vegas. It requested extras to appear in a new Curtis Hanson film starring Drew Barrymore and Eric Bana. While I didn't try out, many others did, and they wrapped Lucky You over the summer. That was nearly two years ago.

What's it mean when a film's release is delayed? The assumption is that the film sucks. While Lucky You isn't terrible -- it opens strong, and the first two acts are quite good -- it becomes a muddled mess by the end. Ironically, this is the kind of thing that could have been fixed with the gift of time.

Eric Bana plays a professional poker player given the hyperliterary name of Huck Cheever. Like his legendary and estranged father in the same line of work (Robert Duvall, still grizzled), he has a unique gift of reading other players. Unlike his father, he has a tendency not to hold back when it comes to betting, and that flaw often works to his detriment.

So the movie's about father/son relationships and gambling addiction. But squeezed in is an unconvincing romance with Drew Barrymore, who plays an aspiring singer learning about poker from Huck. I didn't mind her -- though the character was uninteresting, I liked seeing Bana react to her -- but moments late in the film feel wasted when she's on screen.

Bana, however, makes a terrific lead in his first normal, real guy role. The Aussie comes off as quintessentially American, and makes for a believable (if overly photogenic) competitor. Even his recklessness is charming. But he's just not able to save the film when it goes horribly off course.

Lucky You mostly does a great job of depicting poker, a game that in cinematic terms is somewhere between watching paint dry and the ridiculous theatrics of Casino Royale. (Generally, I liked that film, but the poker was completely unrealistic.) Here, there's truth in the banal pair of fives that wins the hand. But the movie's climax, set at the 2003 World Series of Poker, breaks a cardinal rule just to add a bit of drama... and expects the audience not to notice. This was incredibly frustrating; it's so easy to work around the problem and retain the drama, but Hanson got lazy.

As a final note, the film hints at the evolution of the game into a televised commodity around 2003, with the advent of pocket cams and celebrity matchups with big paydays. Which makes this delayed release all the more painful -- even with its flaws, Lucky You might have reflected the times had audiences seen it when it was most relevant: nearly two years ago.

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