Lucky You wagers that the strategies and insider vocabulary of high-stakes poker are sexy enough to engross even a card-novice moviegoer. Don’t bet on it — advice that comes from a novice delighted with the table action in Casino Royale and Ocean’s Eleven. This marathon, no-stakes drama deals a low-card romance between a daddy-conflicted, poker-playing Las Vegas hotshot named Huck (Eric Bana, suffocating in his poker face) and a sweet, wannabe lounge singer named Billie (Drew Barrymore, drawing the wrong hand when it comes to casting). Of course, he sees in her old-fashioned eyelash fluttering a girly purity apparently missing from every other woman he has ever bedded in Nevada.
But the love story is a bluff. So is the tension between Huck and his mean ol’ poker legend of a father, L.C. (Robert Duvall), a psychobabblish competition that causes the old man to undermine every move his kid makes with crap advice like ”the key to winning is watching and understanding,” and spurs the glowering son to betray his instincts with empty commentary like ”no matter what’s prudent, sometimes you gotta play your gut.” Really, all this movie is about is the joy of checks, calls, folds, rivers, and the acquired thrill of knowing what those words mean. For her part, Billie opines that ”maybe giving and receiving are more complicated than winning and losing,” but nobody listens to her. That’s because Billie is a 2-D character who might as well have been built from green felt.
The movie, I can only assume, is a gut play on the part of writer-director-producer Curtis Hanson, himself a declared poker aficionado. Hanson is also an obsessive filmmaker who loves to immerse himself in exotic subcultures — the senior-citizen Florida geography of In Her Shoes, the Detroit alleyways of 8 Mile, the vintage California noir of L.A. Confidential. And when he and coscreenwriter Eric Roth first began work on the project (the release date has been shuffled a few times), televised poker was just making it big as a popular spectator sport. Clearly, Hanson is jazzed by the macho manipulation of chips and cards, the mysterious knocking and tappings of players with their shuttered eyes, the mindset, and the mumbo jumbo.
Fine for him, but somewhere between the first cards dealt and the inevitable father-and-son showdown at the fictionalized World Series of Poker that wraps up the movie’s therapy sessions, a passion for authenticity gives way to alienating obsession, and real-time betting brings any dramatic momentum to a halt. The air is as artificial as it is in a gaming establishment with no windows or clocks. That an exact replica was built of the Bellagio poker room as it looked in 2003 may be of interest to hotelier Steve Wynn, but replication isn’t action — it’s fetish.
Lucky you, I’ve run out of topical analogies for now, except for this: A decent movie just wasn’t in the cards.