Tag Archives: C-



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.



Watching Kenneth Branagh’s musicalization of Shakespeare’s
middle-drawer comedy is a bit like seeing old newsreels showing
the failed efforts of pre-Wright brothers would-be flying
machines failing to get off the ground. You gaze on with a
mixture of bemusement and morbid fascination as the rickety
contraption rumbles along, straining to get some altitude;
but with a kind of awful inevitability it ultimately collapses
in a pathetic heap. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” tries desperately
to be airy and charming, but it never takes wing.

It’s entirely appropriate that Branagh should have been struck
by the notion of turning the Bard’s complicated (and none too
frequently staged) farce into a musical while the actor was
filming Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” because the finished project
seems reminiscent of the New Yorker’s feeble “Everyone Says I
Love You” (1996), which also dropped old standards into a
comic storyline and, as here, had them sung mostly by people
possessed of very little voice. But at least Allen wrote his
own script and could arrange the plot to make each song at
least vaguely appropriate to the spot where it was inserted,
however poorly performed. In the present instance Branagh
merely prunes Shakespeare’s elaborate verse down to the bone,
eliminating virtually all the dialogue between Holofernes and
Nathaniel (a definite blessing, since most of their Latin-
pocked, learnedly overblown conversation would be practically
incomprehensible to a modern audience) and leaving only the
skeleton of the tale, involving the inevitable romance between
four men (a king and three friends) sworn to avoid women and a
like number of gals (a visiting princess and her three
attendants), intact. He then proceeds to plop tunes from the
thirties and forties into what remains, having the characters
burst into song periodically and engage in dance numbers in the
style of film musicals of that period; he also changes the
setting to the era immediately preceding World Wat II–a
rather nutty notion which involves, among other things, positing
a King of Navarre and a Princess of France existing during
that time, but that allows Branagh to hasten the story along
by regularly inserting bits of faux news footage (a clumsier
version of the “Citizen Kane” technique) whose narrator
describes, and comments upon, the action. As if all this
weren’t bad enough, he tacks on a sadly obvious post-war coda,
unwilling to leave the audience (of whom he obviously has a
rather opinion) with the Bard’s bittersweet, ambigious close.

Most of the ideas that have found their way into this
adaptation weren’t very good to begin with, but Branagh
compounds the difficulty by miscalculations in casting and
direction. Certainly Allen’s debacle should have suggested that
this sort of pastiche requires the services of real singer-
dancers (as well as people who can recite the Shakespearean
shards that remain), but with a few exceptions he’s chosen
performers who lack one or more of the needed qualities. As
Berowne, the writer-director himself handles the dialogue
well enough, but his warbling and hoofing are amateurish.
Alicia Silverstone (as the Princess), Alessandro Nivola (as
the King), and Matthew Lillard (as Longaville) are pretty
much hopeless in all respects; when Lillard croaks out the
Gershwin lyric about singing off key in the final musical
sequence, you can only shake your head in absolute agreement.
Only Adrian Lester, as Dumaine, exhibits real song-and-dance
experience, and his turns just point up the inadequacies of
his co-stars.

The comic relief is no better. As the conniving Don Armando,
Timothy Spall chews the scenery to no end, and for some
reason he sports an accent so thick and garbled that it might
do the Jon Voight of “Anaconda” or Jeff Bridges of “The
Vanishing” proud (nobody else has any trace of a Spanish
accent, of course). Nathan Lane is intensely irritating as
the jester Costard, encouraged to prattle about like a circus
clown (this character one case in which Branagh hasn’t cut
enough), while Jimmy Yuill is incongruously Cockney in the court
of Navarre as the jailer Dull. Somewhat less out-of-place are
Geraldine McEwan, as a female version of Holofernes, and
Richard Briers as Nathaniel; though not much of their dialogue
remains, they recite it nicely, even if their attempts at
singing and dancing are decidedly ragged. The only cast
member who comes off unscathed is Richard Clifford, who’s
suave and charming as Boyet, the princess’ advisor; he reads
his lines smoothly, and thankfully isn’t forced to do any
musical routines.

As if the casting problems weren’t enough, Branagh exacerbates
them with poor directing choices. The dialogue scenes are
handled decently enough, but the intercutting newsreel
sequences are clumsy, and the song-and-dance bits are, by
and large, disasters–not only because the singing is usually
second-rate at best, but because they’re also badly staged.
For some reason Branagh chooses to shoot most of them with a
minimum of editing, so that mistakes are magnified (“The
Way You Look Tonight,” assigned to McEwan and Briers, has a
certain dippy charm, but comes across like a sketch from an
amateur revue as a result of the performers’ extreme caution;
in a case like this, judicious cutting would help enormously).
At other times (as in Spall’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”) the
visuals are simply sophomoric. And in the worst moments,
Branagh invites invidious comparisons: the cheesy flying bit
in “I’ve Got a Crush on You” reminds us of one of the few good
moments (between Woody and Goldie Hawn) in “Everyone Says I
Love You,” and the elaborate but too-carefully choreographed
ensemble number to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” pales
beside the brilliant realization of the same song that Steve
Martin and Bernadette Peters achieved in Herbert Ross’
hugely underrated “Pennies from Heaven” (1981)–a picture
which (unlike this one) melded period tunes and a new story
with enormous success. (Of course, in that case the much-
missed Dennis Potter put the oldies to far more profound
emotional use to capture the moods of the depression-era

One can imagine what Branagh had in mind in “Love’s Labour’s
Lost”–something akin to the miracle of “Cosi fan tutte,” in
which a similarly silly plot about the romantic battle between
men and women is raised to a transcendent level by the sublime
music of Mozart. But though the tunes of Gershwin, Porter,
Kern and Berlin on display here are great too, their mere
presence can’t overcome the problems of adaptation, casting
and direction that mar the picture. Instead of Mozart,
Branagh manages to give us a result more like an amateurish
rendering of some second-rate Gilbert and Sullivan; check out
“Kiss Me Kate” instead.