Perhaps aficionados of the spectator poker competitions that are so ubiquitous on cable television nowadays will be drawn to Curtis Hanson’s new film—which is actually pretty old, its release having been put off several times while the writer-director tinkered with the final cut. But even they will probably find the tale of a young, ambitious but undisciplined player finding love and smoothing things over with his estranged father at a Las Vegas tournament rather tepid going.
“Lucky You” is a handsome movie, not only in terms of its use of Vegas exteriors, its fine production design (Clay A. Griffith) and art direction (Jason Lester) and slick widescreen cinematography (Peter Deming), but because it stars Eric Bana, a very photogenic fellow, in the lead role. He plays Huck Cheever, a decidedly lean and hungry guy who regularly wins and loses big pots in the Las Vegas casinos, his performance at the tables aided by his innate skill but undermined by a penchant for rash, imprudent bets. His hope of getting a seat in the upcoming World Championship is further endangered by the arrival of his father L.C. (Robert Duvall), a former two-time champ whom he’s never forgiven for abandoning the family, whose return unnerves him more than he’ll admit. But a possibility of redemption also shows up in the form of Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), a naïve young thing from Bakersfield who shows up in the city to look for a singing gig at one of the local clubs. She and Huck hit it off—though their incipient relationship is soured by his habit of taking her cash for his stake whenever he needs to, and generally of selfishly cutting corners whenever its expedient (as well as by the misgivings of the woman’s older sister, who knows Huck all too well). But she becomes the person who calls him to his better side, which includes coming to terms with his feelings about his father and even making a sacrifice for the older man.
What the picture’s all about, in the end, is a man’s facing up to his past, embracing human relationships over a life of isolation, and tempering the recklessness of youth with the maturity that comes with emotional experience. Which would be well and good, provided that Hanson and co-writer Eric Roth had found a way to make it dramatically compelling. But they haven’t. “Lucky You” is limp and meandering, with thin characters and a flaccid rhythm. Huck’s personal demons are portrayed in the sketchiest terms, and though Bana brings a certain lithe intensity to the part, he’s unable to give the guy real charisma. Similarly, L.C.’s biggest character trait is his vanity—what’s most notable about him is his dyed hair!—and about all Duvall can do to give him a bit of color is to wince and grimace, familiar bits from his bag of tricks. Barrymore is provided even less to work with, and emerges blank and pallid.
Along the way the script tosses in lots of sidebars—Huck’s involvement with a sinister money man (Charles Martin Smith); his camaraderie with a loopy fellow who takes all bets, however absurd (Saverio Guerra); his tense relationship with Billie’s protective sister (Debra Messing). But none of these tangents really goes anywhere or contributes to the larger theme. And the structure of the picture is lackadaisical, partially as result of editing (by Craig Kitson and William Kerr) that never manages to give shape to the proceedings. (There’s a sequence about Huck’s taking a bet with a gambler, played with gusto by Horatio Sanz, that involves his running a marathon and then completing a golf game within three hours, that has promise, but is choreographed so randomly that it loses any punch it might have had.)
Even the poker sequences, which presumably were the raison d’etre of the piece, are curiously lifeless. Partially that’s because the script has to explain what’s happening to those in the audience who might not be experts (at one point in an instruction-book recitation Huck gives to the novice Billie, and then in the competition at the close via that old standby, the play-by-play television announcer). But mostly it’s because they can’t really convey the underlying drama, since they’re necessarily reduced to montages, the final card-toss between the two remaining players, and those repetitive shots of competitors sneaking glances over and over at the two cards they’re holding. (Why would they do that? Certainly they can’t have forgotten what they are.) Even using some real pros in these episodes doesn’t make them seem real. And Bana and Duvall are simply unable to bring enough drive to their generational duel to give it the tension it demands. (Perhaps, like this viewer, you’ll become more and more attached to the only player who’s really fascinating—the bullet-headed Ralph Kaczynski played by John Hennigan—a dour, totally emotionless guy who might be auditioning for a role in a David Lynch movie.) The last-act reconciliations—Huck with L.C., Huck with Billie—don’t carry much electricity, either.
The supporting cast of “Lucky You” is rich in unrealized promise: Messing and Smith are pretty much wasted, and Robert Downey, Jr. shows up for a cameo which is basically a one-joke gag; Sanz and Guerra, meanwhile, act like refugees from a TV sketch comedy. The only actor, in fact, who leaves you wanting more is Michael Shannon, who makes the most of two short scenes as an especially nasty foe of Huck’s.
Though Hanson is a talented filmmaker, and presumably a devotee of the tables, he hasn’t been able to bring this story to life. And you can’t simply argue that card games are naturally uncinematic—after all, in the mid-sixties both “The Cincinnati Kid” and “A Big Hand for the Little Lady” got reasonably good mileage out of poker games, though in very different ways. But here, it seems a tedious pastime indeed, at least from the outside looking in. The pronoun in the title obviously doesn’t refer to the viewer.