"Lucky You" is a tutorial in professional poker. The strategy. The company. And, most importantly for any movie that chooses to invest in its subject - the nature of it. The screenplay - written by Eric Roth and director Curtis Hanson - charts the heartbeat of an addicted gambler, a pulse that mirrors that of a cocaine user: Joyous leaps and races punctuated by moments when the flow of blood almost stops completely.
It strips some of the manly sweat away from the craft, too. The movie lacks the histrionics and black drama of, say, "Rounders," in part because "Rounders" is a myth, born of the idea men have about the wars of personality going on at a poker table. "Lucky You" has its clashes, for sure, and its cliches, too, but they lack blarney and false bravado. Here, poker is risk management. Actuarial work. And it makes sense.
Eric Bana turns in a committed performance as Huck Cheever, a Las Vegas poker player - he dabbles in other ridiculous bets of chance, cards, and athletic skill, but is careful never to play "the house" - whose attitude might best be likened to golfer Phil Mickelson. Huck fires for the pin on nearly every hand, overshoots the cards, and never seems to get the river when he needs it most. It's not that Huck doesn't see the angles - he chooses to obliterate them. Again and again. That's how he ends up with an empty house whose deed is held by a sports gambler watching seven televisions at once, including Australian basketball.
The movie opens with Huck pawning his mother's ring, in an effort to get a $10,000 stake in the World Series of Poker. He'll win it that $10,000, then he'll lose it, win it, lose it. His shifting fortune will involve a lounge singer new to Vegas named Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore). As her own character, Billie, seemingly naïve but oddly full of rectitude, is ill-defined. As a mirror held up to Huck's unshaven face, she would be effective if Barrymore, a sunny, buoyant actor unsuited to the moral compromises of Sin City, weren't playing her. "Lucky You" tries on romance but never makes it fit very well.
Better are the father/son dynamics between Huck and his father L.C. (Robert Duvall), a revered champion for whom Huck has unmitigated disdain. There are no surprises in their absent chemistry - L.C. was a deadbeat dad, Huck developed into a deadbeat, in general - but their scenes, especially one in a diner over several games of Guts, are fiercely written. Duvall still knows how to massage a monologue with his halting speech patterns; he uses a comic's understanding of a punchline to create a lizard of a man, down his slicked mat of hair plugs. L.C. sees himself as a Picasso of cards, an artist who sense his "time" of heightened skills is drawing to a close.
Thing is, Huck still has the nose.
For what? The mood of a hand. The unspoken momentum of it. The smell of winning and money. "Lucky You" has no prideful illusions about poker - if anything, it sticks its talons hard into the idea of "manning up" - but it still injects an air of tension and romance into its many poker hands. However misguided or addictive the behavior might be, most of the players in the movie show a love (or at least a healthy lust) for the craft; only Huck seems bent on something greater than victory. Michael Shannon and Jean Smart are especially effective in smaller as two of Huck's competitors, but the credit can be spread around; using several actors from "8 Mile," director Hanson asks for hunger and mild desperation, and he gets it from them.
Hanson's camera is equally nuanced. This is no Vegas glamour pic; we are spared helicopter dollies of The Strip. The candy lights blink in the background of many scenes, but the characters are not enamored or gob smacked by the scene, including Billie. This is a movie of people who live here, and work here, and it is long past excitement. Such honesty about the city - and the willpower to resist it becoming a character of its own - is refreshing.
Aside from Billie, the movie's weakness is a nearly endless final act that covers the World Series of Poker, not since Stallone's "Over The Top" - I'm semi-serious here - has a movie been so committed to introducing new characters in the final thirty minutes like video game bosses, then placing a miniature story arc on their fortunes. The movie's two twists are easily spotted before they unfold and the "resolution," as it were, seems a little dishonest, if morally tidy.
Nevertheless, "Lucky You" has a surprising amount of integrity, and Bana delivers a smooth, like-him-loathe-him performance, equal parts intelligence and ego. He only missteps when he has to make eyes at Barrymore. Funny that Roth and Hanson have a romantic angle for commercial appeal, only to have the movie shelved and dumped on the same weekend of the largest opening in film history ("Spider-Man 3").