Lucky You: Curtis Hanson’s Poker Game Movie, Starring Robert Duvall and Eric Bana

Neither exciting as a poker-game movie nor compelling as a Vegas romantic melodrama, Curtis Hanson’s “Lucky You” is a major disappointment, an old-fashioned saga that bears no resemblance to the helmer’s previous highlights, L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, or even 8 Mile.

Releasing a movie like “Lucky You,” which receives its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, in the same week as “Spidey 3” means that Warner has no confidence in their effort, since even good movies don’t stand a prayer in such climate.

Sitting on the shelves for two years, Hanson’s picture lost the momentum of major historical developments in the global poker game circa 2003. End result is something more in the vein of the director’s chick flick, “In her Shoes,” which like this one, despite star power, was listless and burdened with simplistic Freudian psychology. If “In Her Shoes” dealt with sibling rivalry (Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette) and reunion with a “lost” grandmother (Shirley MacLaine), “Lucky You” concerns father-son rivalry, enacted by Robert Duvall and Eric Bana.

Since most of “Lucky You” (a bad, generic title) is set indoors, the picture doesn’t even capture the crass and vulgarity of Las Vegas as the new Mecca for such sports events. Hanson’s film will not add a panel to such thrilling sports-poker sagas as Norman Jewison’s “The Cincinnati Kid” (with the ultra-cool Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson) or, more recently “Casino Royale,” in which James Bond played against a heavy worthy of his stature.

Aussie Eric Bana seems to have struck bad luck in Hollywood, what with his appearance in Spielberg’s “Munich,” a great film that was nonetheless a commercial failure. And now comes “Lucky You,” which will not catapult him into the major league of stars, either.

Bana plays Huck Cheever, a poker player whose emotions at the table often undermine his exceptional skill, especially when he’s heads-up with his father, poker legend L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall). Bringing some joy but also complicating his life is Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), a young singer from Bakersfield who’s his oppositeshe has more heart than talent.

The one aptitude Billie and Huck seem to share is a knack for reading peoplethe difference is what they do with that gift. While Hucks instincts enable him to take advantage of his opponents at the poker table and expertly avoid both emotional connections and long-term commitments in personal life, Billie uses her intuition to see the emotional truth of those around her and sympathize with their pain.

Rest of the saga is about playing games and learning life lessons. If Huck is going to win Billies heart, he must learn to play cards the way he has been living life–and live his life the way he has been playing cards.

Hence, despite the relatively novel locale (there have not been many poker pictures), the screenplay, by Eric Roth and Curtis Hanson, from Roth’s story, is quite formulaic in the dramatic conflicts it sets and then the resolutions it offers, both between the lovers and particularly between Huck and his dad, a part that even a brilliant thespian like Robert Duvall can’t salvage.

We are led to believe that Huck’s innate ability at the poker table and his seeming inability to reach his potential can both be traced back to his strained relationship with his maverick father, in whose shadow Huck has always lived. (It’s the kind of role that Tom Cruise played in the 1980s while in his 20s, but Bana is 40 or so!).

Then there’s the problem of Duvall’s character, which is constructed as too much of an icon, a mythic presence. Duvall is such a superlative instinctive actor that he can convey L.C. Cheever’s qualities–fiercely competitive, stoically tough, highly intimidating as father and player–without the banal dialogue he’s given.

Hanson is loyal to his performers, which is fine, but it’s a shame to cast Robert Downey Jr. (who was brilliant in “Wonder Boys”) in such a tiny and thankless part.

Ditto for the rest of secondary class. When will someone write a worthy role for the gifted Debra Messing (still best-known for TV’s “Will and Grace”) As Suzanne, Barrymore’s older sister and Huck’s old acquaintance, Messing has nothing interesting to say other than to warn Billie not to succumb to Huck’s womanizing charming–and she looks bad, which is inexcusable.

As noted, the meller is set in the world of high-stakes poker in Las Vegas circa 2003. Curtis has recently said that he wanted to do a relationship story set in the poker world, “because Ive always been fascinated by the fact that the skills one must develop to be a good poker player are almost the exact opposite of the skills needed to be successful in a relationship. Deceit, or bluffing, which can destroy the trust needed for a successful personal relationship, is a big part of the game. There is also no collaborative spirit; its an individual sport. Poker players must be completely self-centered; they cant have sympathy and win. They cant worry about whether their opponent can afford a loss. By contrast, warm human relationships are based on caring, empathy, honesty and often putting the other person first.”

Hence, Curtis tries to show poker as both a metaphor and a mirror for the different relationships in a story. The filmmakers hold that “all great gambling movies are love stories about winning and losing and finding your way. But how does one visualize these honorable ideas in an engaging way

Hanson and his gifted lenser Peter Deming spend a good deal of time around the poker table, but despite the presence of numerous real-life poker experts and consultants on the set, most of the poker scenes are listless, failing to generate the kind of energy, dynamics, tension that prevail in such games.

The editing, by Craig Kitson and William Kerr, is particularly lethargic, lacking snap in the ways that the poker scenes are cut, and devoid of energy in the transition from the interior to the exterior scenes. The whole movie is dragging and way too long (125 minutes), which is particularly disappointing since Hanson is known for his astute and precise mise-en-scene.

No doubt, “Lucky You” would have been more resonant if it were released in 2004 or 2005, since 2003 is considered to be a seminal year in the world of poker, one that witnessed many dramatically changed. First, Internet poker was exploding, allowing amateur players from all over the world to hone their card skills online. Second, the hole card camera was introduced that year, which made the game more popular on TV because it allowed the audience at home to see the players hole cards and learn about the nuances of betting and bluffing. And third, 2003 was the year an unknown amateur internet player, Chris Moneymaker, won the Poker World Series, making it possible for lay viewers and players to relate to him as an average Joe.

However, judging by what unfolds onscreen, there’s no evidence of the fast-growing poker craze. As for the romantic lovers, both Bana and Barrymore are appealing performers, but their arguments, temporary splits and reconciliations are predictable. Besides, Barrymore is such a transparently honest actress that from their very first scene together, we know that Billie would end up being Huck’s muse and his conscience.

Cast

Huck Cheever (Eric Bana)
Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore)
L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall)
Suzanne Offer (Debra Messing)
Ready Eddie (Horatio Sanz)
Roy Durucher (Charles Martin Smith)
Lester (Saverio Guerra)
Michelle Carson (Jean Smart)

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 125 Minutes.

A Warner release, presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Deuce Three/Di Novi Pictures production.
Produced by Denise Di Novi, Curtis Hanson, Carol Fenelon.
Executive producer, Bruce Berman.
Co-producer, Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda.
Directed by Curtis Hanson.
Screenplay, Eric Roth, Hanson, from a story by Roth.
Camera: Peter Deming.
Production designer: Clay A. Griffith.
Film editors: Craig Kitson and William Kerr.
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan.
Composer: Christopher Young.