“Lucky You”, from director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”, “8 Mile”) and co-writer Eric Roth (“The Good Shepherd”, “Forrest Gump”, “Munich”), is the new romantic drama starring Drew Barrymore and Eric Bana (“Hulk”). With a cast featuring Robert Duvall, Debra Messing (TV’s “Will & Grace”), Jean Smart and others, you would expect this film to be the equivalent of a full house. Instead, it more closely resembles a couple of deuces.
All of the elements should be there to make this film better than winning a huge pot in a hand of poker, the director, the writer, Barrymore and Duvall all have a background including some well-made films. But key elements are missing or don’t connect and “Lucky” begins to make you feel just the opposite.
Huck (Bana), a professional poker player, knows his way around the casinos of Las Vegas. He rides his motorcycle into the back entrance of Bellagio and takes a series of shortcuts to the gaming floor, returning greetings from a number of employees along the way. When he arrives at the Poker tables, he informs the pit boss that he is going to play with the “guppies” for a while. After winning some money, he turns to the regulars’ table and plays with the professionals and for higher stakes. They all greet each other and enjoy the camaraderie; all are in town for the World Poker Championship and consider this a bit of a warm-up. Then, L. C. Cheever (Duvall) shows up to play. L. C. is Huck’s dad and there is some bad blood. They quickly turn the game into a private hand, a pissing match. Later, having lost a lot of money, Huck goes to a local bar and meets Billie (Barrymore), Suzanne’s (Messing) sister. After a little meet cute repartee, Huck leaves, convinced Suzanne would never let her little sister near him. Huck becomes desperate to get into the World Poker Championship, but can’t rustle up the $10,000 needed to enter. A local player (Charles Martin Smith) offers to bank roll him for a percentage of the winnings. But Huck wants the $2.5 million prize for himself. He soon learns Billie has landed a job singing at a local nightclub and suggests they go out to celebrate. He uses her $1000 savings to win a bundle and gives her back her stake plus a percentage. But L. C. shows up again and knocks his son’s concentration. Huck becomes desperate to do anything to get into the tournament, threatening his new relationship with Billie.
“Lucky You” has a lot going for it, and many of the same things it has going for it also detract from it, erasing any feeling and heart the film manages to achieve.
The film is written well. Roth knows his way around a screenplay and has once again created an interesting story with many strange, quirky characters. Every time they speak, they seem witty and tuned in to their emotions. But this is also part of the problem. Bana’s Huck is always ready to relate some nugget of poker wisdom to his life, or to the feelings Billie is going through at any particular moment. Duvall’s L. C. is just as ready to explain the rules of the universe to his son, using some thinly veiled reference to Poker. Barrymore’s Billie is cute and charming. Robert Downey Jr. makes a cameo appearance as Telephone Jack, the operator of a number of phone-in advice lines. After he and Huck have a brief exchange, he fires off one last pearl of wisdom before they part ways. There is a brief pause, between Jack’s statement and Huck’s leaving, serving as a drum beat to a punch line, signaling that we should pay attention to this writing. Because of these moments, the writing loses any naturalness it may have been able to hide behind. Everyone and everything seems way too staged and choreographed,
Roth and Hanson are also much more fascinated with poker than they should be. I know watching poker on television has created ratings bonanzas for some of the cable networks and it seems that everyone is now playing the card game. So is this film designed merely to try to capitalize on this current phenomenon? I’m not sure this is the only reason the film was made, but it certainly helped during the pitch meetings.
That said, Roth and Hanson spend a lot of time letting their characters talk about the game, the mechanics of various hands, the strategy of reading your fellow players, when to bet, when to fold, and much, much more. When this becomes apparent, and this happens very early on, you realize one thing is going to happen. These same bon mots about the game will be used to give us ‘insight’ into the lives of the characters, their motivations, etc. For instance, we learn early on that Huck is a ‘blaster’; he plays ‘all in’ when he plays poker, winning or losing a lot of money in the process. I wonder if this will translate to his personal life with Billie?
Also, the key to poker is maintaining a ‘poker face’ and not revealing your emotions to the rest of the table. Huck seems to use this philosophy in his real life. He rarely, if ever, smiles, and shows so little emotion with Billie he seems bored and is almost boring. Early on, he states he thinks relationships are just an excuse for lonely people to keep from feeling lonely. Now that is a great basis for a romantic drama. Unfortunately, throughout Bana seems to be taking this philosophy literal in his portrayal of Huck. He never seems to enjoy Billie’s company, always more intent on winning the next poker game or the penultimate tournament.
Bana, an Australian, has appeared in many, many films and always seems to be on the verge of breaking through. The ill-fated “Hulk”, helmed by Ang Lee, was a big-budget film that promised to shoot him into the stratosphere. When that film failed, every film he appears in seems to be the next ‘breakout’ film. And “Lucky You” is no exception. Bana is good looking, but he has never demonstrated an interesting range, or even a ‘range’ to his acting ability. Every performance is dominated by one key emotion and he does little to display any other. In “Lucky You”, we never get the feeling of any chemistry between he and Barrymore. He smiles a couple of times when they first meet, but that line about lonely people haunts the relationship, making it seem more desperate than anything else.
Barrymore fares better. She is wide-eyed and ready for new experiences as a recent transplant to Vegas. Attracted to Huck, she disregards the advice of her sister and falls headlong into the relationship. As they get to know each other, Huck naturally uses poker as a way to entertain her, using her money to provide him with a stake while he teaches her about the game. Barrymore is cute and provides more than a little charm to the role. But when Billie realizes what Huck is all about, she disappears for a long stretch of time, returning only to watch Huck play in the final game of the big tournament. It is a strange arch for a relation ship. On the one hand, it could be considered more believable, but it also doesn’t allow the characters to really connect, to create any onscreen chemistry.
Duvall’s L.C. Cheever, Huck’s father is also interested in winning the World Poker Championship for the third time, cementing his legacy. From the moment he shows up, it is clear there is some bad blood between them, and as the film progresses, we learn little bits of why and how throughout. But the poker euphemisms also predominate here, overshadowing any creation of real characters.
Debra Messing’s Suzanne is a woman who has seen more than her fair share of Vegas. Because of this, she is more world-weary and desperately wants to prevent her sister from making the same mistakes. Horatio Sanz (TV’s “Saturday Night Live”) pops up a few times as Ready Eddie, a man willing to bet on anything. Saverio Guerra plays Lester, a man who has fake breasts to win a bet. Yeah, I can’t understand why he is in the film either, but the character is reportedly based on a real person.
“Lucky You” is best at depicting the life of Vegas’ natives, the people who work and live in the city many of us only visit. In this way, “Lucky” gives us a little of a backstage look at what life is like for the people who make our playtime possible. As Huck enters the Bellagio through the back, many employees greet him. He knows the ins and outs of the various casinos, he knows how to bend the rules. From this, we can extrapolate that many others are capable of doing the same things. This view makes parts of the film more interesting.
What this view doesn’t do is make the film better. “Lucky You” is a disappointing effort from the usually dependable Hanson and Roth.