When F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were “no second acts in American lives”, he clearly didn’t have the director Curtis Hanson. Hasnson, a director mainly known for a few populist thrillers, came out of nowhere to make one of the best movies of the late 90’s: L.A. Confidential. Hanson followed this success up with the also excellent Wonder Boys, then went on to make the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile a good three or four times better than it had any right to be. No one was quite ready to call him great, but he was definitely a director who could make very good movies. Hanson’s latest film Lucky You was in the unenviable position of opening against Spider-Man 3 after sitting on a shelf for well over half a year. Hanson’s film certainly deserved a better fate than that embarrassment, but at the same time there was a reason the film was held so long.
Eric Bana plays Huck Cheever, a Las Vegas poker player with a chip on his shoulder. Huck’s father L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall), a major figure in professional poker tournaments, had abandoned Huck’s mother when Huck was still a child. Whenever Huck plays his father at poker he finds his emotions interfering with his game. Huck begins trying to save up the ten thousand dollars needed to enter the World Series of Poker when he meets a bar singer named Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore) who he becomes emotionally attracted to.
There are a lot of movies set in the world of Las Vegas gambling. Recent examples of the genre that come to mind are Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler, Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight. But few movies set in this world seem to be so singularly interested in the actual gambling. There is a love story here and a story about a father and son, but neither of these seem to be as interesting to Hanson as the “sport” of Texas hold ‘em poker.
The film does poker in a much more believable and realistic way than most films. It’s always been a pet peeve of mine to see the poor way that movies like the recent James Bond vehicle Casino Royale handled card games. Most movie poker games seem to be decided by a royal flush beating a straight flush. On the very few occasions when I’ve played poker I felt incredibly lucky whenever I got my hands on two pairs. Lucky You never falls into these traps, many games here are won with small pairs, and the one time an incredible hand occurs it is looked at as an extreme aberration.
Eric Bana is one of my personal favorite actors around today, he delivered great performances in Munich and Chopper, and when he was in below average movies like Troy and Hulk he usually ended up being the best part of them. Here he’s giving what I call a “default performance”. It’s an unchallenging role in a contemporary film that basically works to establish what Bana is like in a normal film so we can appreciate him more when he’s really trying to disappear into a role. Robert Duvall is also a nice presence, but his is also a very unchallenging role. The performance of Drew Barrymore, however, is sub-par. I’ve come to not expect much from Barrymore, and she did not surprise me here.
Hanson does nothing poorly with the direction, but also nothing special. It is a fairly straightforward production and ultimately a fairly understated production. The cinematography works fairly well, and the movie isn’t over-edited. Hanson wisely chooses not to show any of the player’s hands except for Hucks, and there is a fair amount of suspense in the card games.
Huck Cheever is a somewhat interesting character, but he doesn’t have much to do here. The story arc is just too weak to really work. The love story is formulaic and feels like an afterthought, and there’s nothing in the father and son storyline we haven’t seen before. The story is ultimately a catalyst to explore this world of professional gambling. If this is a world you as the viewer have no interest in, this isn’t the movie for you. There is however enough interesting things about this world to entertain in a fairly moderate way. There’s nothing entirely bad about the movie, its success largely just depends on the viewer’s interest in Poker tournaments. Certainly worth a look if it’s on cable, possibly worth a rent if you have a great interest in Poker.
**1/2 out of four