Over the years there have been any number of films in which poker has played a prominent role. "The Cincinnati Kid," "California Split," "The Sting," "Rounders," and "Casino Royale" are just a few examples that spring to mind. But in the past decade or so, cable TV has given an even bigger lift to the game, with various poker championships becoming almost as popular with television audiences as golf. Or bass fishing.
"Lucky You," the 2007 film from director Curtis Hanson ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys," "8 Mile"), combines the modern phenomenon of watching various people play poker with the old-fashioned experience of watching two people fall in love, neither event in this movie particularly complementing the other.
The title, you see, is one of those two-toned affairs: Lucky in cards and lucky in love, or vice versa. Very clever. The movie stars Eric Bana as Huck Cheever, a young gambler involved with cards and romance, and I have to tell you from the outset that Bana gave a better performance being dragged by a chariot around the walls of Troy than he does here. I know the filmmakers want us to think of card players as poker faced, but Bana looks positively paralyzed. I've seldom seen so static a characterization from so talented an actor. I can only assume it's the way Bana and director Hanson saw Huck's personality, yet it doesn't help the viewer to sympathize or empathize with him in any way. Huck is simply like his namesake, Huck Finn, adrift in a world he's not yet sure of, although he's learning fast. Huck Cheever is an amiable, quick-thinking huckster, an aggressive self-promoter who is everybody's friend. Yet, unlike Twain's Huck, this Huckleberry isn't very interesting. What we see in the beginning is what we get in the end, no more, no less. At one point, Huck starts to tell us something about how poker is to him like a philosophy of life, but that point peters out pretty quickly, and we find as a personality he's mostly an empty shell.
The story is about Huck's competing in the 2003 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Nevada. First, he's got to find a stake because like most professional gamblers in most movies about them, Huck never seems to have any money. We figure he's either very reckless or very stupid, the movie making it clear he's reckless. So for the first two-thirds of the film, we see Huck floundering around winning and losing money before he can come up with the tournament's entrance fee of $10,000. There are 800 contestants, the winner taking away $2,500,000.
While this first two-thirds of the film are going on, we also see Huck become romantically involved with a naive, small-town girl from Bakersfield, Billie Offer, played by, of all people, Drew Barrymore. OK, Ms. Barrymore did a good job as Cinderella in "Ever After," so, yes, she can play naive. If only there were more breadth to the character with which she could work, she might have been able to do something with it, but once we learn she's naive, that's it. Then it's more like willful and childish. Yes, the filmmakers intend for us to see her innocent personality clash with Huck's more worldly wise one, but, in fact, the romance develops no chemistry and fizzles rather fast.
Of greater benefit to the viewer is Huck's stormy relationship with his dad, L.C. Cheever, played with his usual confidence by Robert Duvall. L.C. is also a gambler, a former English professor turned big-time card player, who has won the World Series of Poker twice and wants to win it one last time. The son and dad have not spoken for many years, so you can see where the conflict comes in. Well, at least it's a conflict of sorts, even if it doesn't create much tension, and it's something the rest of the movie sorely lacks.
The film devotes its final third to the tournament itself, and, again, you can guess what's going to happen. Which is the film's biggest problem: It's quite predictable. I kept waiting and hoping for some surprises along the way, but none come along. The story is just mainly about poker, period, with a little of the girl and the dad thrown in. And what do you mean, Do Huck and Billie ever reach an agreement on their diverse ways of life, and Do the father and son reach the finals together? Does the grass stay green when you water it?
In its defense, you do learn a good deal about the ins and outs of poker playing, and the filmmakers surround the main characters with a fine supporting cast, a host of real-life celebrity poker players, and an accurate recreation of the Las Vegas casinos in which these high-stakes poker sessions are held. In addition to the sturdy Duvall, among the best of the supporting players are Debra Messing as Suzanne Offer, Billie's older sister; Charles Martin Smith as Roy Durucher, a sponsor who offers to put up Huck's entrance fee for a big split of his winnings; and, best of all, Robert Downey Jr. in what amounts to a cameo as Telephone Jack, a 900-number con artist.
For the most part, "Lucky You" sags and sputters along at a crawl. Still, it's not really a bad film, just a sweetly mediocre one. It takes forever to warm up and get to the final tournament, and then it provides us with more card playing.
Warner Bros. offer another of their welcome, high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfers, this one replicating the film's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio and measuring about 2.26:1 across my screen, given a small degree of overscan. The colors are fairly natural, sometimes a trifle dark and glassy, and object delineation is fairly accurate, although not quite in the highest league of standard-definition reproduction. There is a light film grain that gives everything a realistically normal look; it will not bother anyone.
The audio, which comes to us via Dolby Digital 5.1, sounds ordinary because it never has to do anything extraordinary. It has little to accomplish except replicate the sounds of dialogue, crowds, and clinking chips. Occasionally, we hear a dog barking in the surrounds or a gambler talking behind us, but for the most part all we get is a realistic, if somewhat limited, midrange response from the front speakers.
There are two featurettes of importance, the first of which I enjoyed more than the movie. It's called "The Players at the Table," an eighteen-minute look at the real-life poker players who make up much of the film's cast. The second featurette is a lot like it; called "The Reel Deal: The Time and Place of Lucky You," it takes a look at the settings that help make the movie appear true-to-life.
The other extras include nine minutes of deleted scenes in non-anamorphic widescreen; thirty-three scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"You raised me with nothing," says a card player whom Huck has just bluffed. "Sometimes," replies Huck, "nothing's enough." It's an exchange of lines right out of "Cool Hand Luke," almost the very lines that give the Paul Newman movie its title. That's how bereft "Lucky You" is of original ideas, unless you think the film intends the dialogue as a homage to the earlier film, or unless you think the filmmakers intend the words symbolically, representing the father-and-son relationship. I don't put too much stock in either of the latter readings, though, because nothing else in the film has hinted at anything more than surface gloss. "Lucky You" is simply a well-intentioned romantic-gambling film that misses the mark by providing little we haven't seen before and better.