LUCKY YOU, directed by Curtis Hanson. written by Hanson and Eric Roth, with Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, Robert Duvall. A Warner Brothers release. 127 minutes. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Warners has been sitting on Curtis Hanson's poker drama for over a year - when I was in Vegas in early 2005, there were signs around Binion's Horseshoe casino advising patrons that entering the casino constituted an agreement to be filmed. (I looked, but I'm not in it) So, have they been waiting this long to be sure the poker craze is over?
With its climactic events taking place at the 2003 World Series of Poker, Lucky You is set at the moment when the world of poker changed, when an unknown internet player named Chris Moneymaker (no, really, that is his name) won the $10,000 No Limit Hold'em event at the Series on ESPN and changed the poker world forever.
Which might be interesting, if that's what the film were about.
Unfortunately, and this is Hollywood studio thinking, we have to have a conventional Hollywood narrative. So instead of a perfectly good movie about the pressures of compulsion and the world of high-stakes poker, we have a narrative that can only be described as overburdened.
Huck Cheever is a rising young poker player dealing with the oedipal shadows of his legendary father L.C. while wooing Billie, a new-in- town lounge singer played by Drew Barrymore. Well, Eric Bana's almost 40 and can play in his 30s, but he isn't young anymore and he doesn't much match up with Robert Duvall, who's playing his father.
Did Curtis Hanson recently lose a parent? His last three pictures all have a big parent-child conflict in them - mother and son in Eight Mile, mother-daughter in In Her Shoes and father son in Lucky You - a development you wouldn't expect from the director of Wonder Boys and LA Confidential
Hanson and co-screenwriter Eric Roth have a jam-packed narrative with the Bana-Duval storyline on the one hand, the Bana-Barrymore storyline on the other hand, and the World Series of Poker storyline on the third. That's too many hands in a film that runs over two hours.
At some point, there has to have been more stuff -- Jean Smart and Debra Messing are here and they're both too big for their parts. Smart, as a poker pro, has about three lines and Messing plays Barrymore's older sister, so I suspect there's a three hour cut of this picture in Hanson's basement.
The poker milieu is very well done and if you like poker scenes, these are way better than the ones in Casino Royale. They've cast a bunch of poker pros as poker pros and the actors cast as poker players are generally convincing. (I worked as the technical consultant on the ESPN poker drama Tilt, and they kept sending us actors who didn't even know how to play poker, let alone look like people that you actually see in poker rooms. We got actors who looked like people you see in casino commercials. Walking through the poker set the first day, my first job was getting the actors out of their ties and jackets.)
That's what's good about it. But Lucky You would be a way better movie if they'd just get rid of the main story.
Bana and Barrymore have zero chemistry and Barrymore's character is kind of a pill. We can't for a second figure out why Huck, a compulsive personality with a minimal sense of personal responsiblity, would want to date this dour schoolmarm character. In westerns, it's easy to understand why the gunslinger might love the schoolmarm -- there's not a lot of options. But in contemporary Vegas, it makes no sense.
Add Barrymore's backstory to the list of things that may be on the cutting room floor. She's also acting as if the last thing that happened before she walked on set each day was that someone would strike her on the back of the head with a large mallet. (In a couple of brief scenes, Bana has more chemistry with Messing than with his co-star.)
Bana's Huck is dealing with a lot of shit -- he's got to redeeem himself as someone who can't deal with personal relationships, he's got to sort out his tortured relationship with his father and he's trying to win the World Series of Poker.
Speaking as someone who's had personal relationships and played in poker tournaments, I'd say that someone who's trying to convince his potential new girlfriend that he's not a completely self-absorbed jerk at the same time he's trying to get into a major poker tournament isn't really committed to winning the poker tournament.
After all, being a completely self-absorbed jerk has never stopped anyone from winning a major poker tournament. Just ask Phil Hellmuth.