At first glance, Lucky You seems to have been dealt a strong hand. It's got acclaimed director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, In Her Shoes) at the wheel. It has a strong, likeable cast in Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, and Robert Duvall. And its subject—poker—is red hot these days.
But more than the sport and the gambling associated with it, poker is also a strong dramatic device in movies. The Cincinnati Kid, Rounders, Maverick, and even James Bond in Casino Royale were able to mine great suspense out of playing cards. A sideways comment, a nervous glance, and even a pause of silence all add to the tension and drama as we wonder who has the winning hand.
Alas, Lucky You falls considerably short of the mark—not surprising, since the movie was filmed almost two years ago, and has been shelved a few times before finally seeing the light of day. It's not one of the year's worst, but it's not particularly good either.
Most of the blame falls on the story by Eric Roth, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hanson. Most recently, Roth brought us The Good Shepherd, and has offered terrific films like Munich, The Insider, and Forest Gump to name a few. But Lucky You is a muddled mess that doesn't belong on the same resume.
A shame, because the film gets off to a good start in a pawn shop, as Huck Cheever (Bana) attempts to sell some items to the shrewd store owner. It leads to a wonderful exchange with Huck making a case for why his items are worth more money, demonstrating his ability to read other people and play his strengths—spoken like a true marketer … or a professional poker player.
In an all too familiar storyline, Huck is working to build up the cash needed for the entrance fee to play in the big poker tournament. Problem is, as well as he plays, he can't seem to hold on to his winnings, foolishly losing them again and again for one reason or another. Complicating the scenario is the arrival of Billie Offer (Barrymore), the new girl in Vegas looking for her big break as a lounge singer.
Why these two meet is a no-brainer, at least from a filmmaking standpoint. Good dramas throw in a good romantic subplot of some sort, and it ties in with Hanson's overall motivation for the film: the interesting notion that the skills needed to play poker are pretty much the exact opposite of those needed to foster a strong relationship (ruthlessness vs. selflessness).
The problem is, Lucky You never offers a compelling reason for why Huck and Billie should get together. She's new in town. He meets her in a bar, and finds out she's the younger sister of his ex-girlfriend Suzanne (Debra Messing). She learns from said sister he's no good and has trouble with commitment. They go out anyway. He treats her like dirt. She reluctantly gives him another chance. He eventually treats her like dirt again. The theme seems to be that both are good at reading people, but we never really see that side of Billie—she's too underdeveloped as the sympathetic love interest. We need more reason to root for this romance other than the fact that they're the two leading characters.
Not much better is the strained relationship between Huck and his father L.C. Cheever (Duvall), a two-time poker champ who conveniently seems to show up at any poker table or restaurant where Huck happens to be. Though L.C. means well, he didn't show enough love to his son growing up, causing Huck to resent living in his father's shadow—and thus explaining why he plays so recklessly to try and beat him at cards. It's a clichéd relationship, but undeniably fun to watch Bana and Duvall spar with each other.
Overall, Lucky You offers little beyond variations on a theme. Huck gets money. Huck loses money. Huck finds new source for money. Huck finds way to lose it again. And so on as Huck finds increasingly ridiculous ways to gain and lose thousands of dollars. The worst is a ten-minute sequence in which Huck makes a bet with Saturday Night Live's Horatio Sanz (as a bookie, gambler, or nutcase, it's never quite clear). Huck must run behind Sanz's car to a golf course, where he must play a round of speed golf and finish under par in three hours or less. It's completely absurd, existing only as an excuse to try and infuse some action into the film outside of the casino.
Suffice to say, after 90 minutes of monetary monotony and underdeveloped characters, Huck does make it to the big game. But will you care by that point, and is there any room for suspense? Will Huck go far in the tournament? Will he, against all odds, end up playing against his father? Will he somehow reconcile with Billie in the process? Pretty safe bets if you ask me, and maybe he'll learn the film's central lesson in the process: that he needs to live life like he plays cards and play cards like he lives his life. I never quite understood that assessment—seems like he's living and playing pretty recklessly all around.
And that's why the card game plays out flatly. Hanson films it well, expertly using camera angles to conceal key cards with other objects for a moment of suspense. But if we don't care about the characters or what they're playing for, then we've no reason to root for them. In Rounders, we wanted Matt Damon's character to win his life back after some bad life choices. In Maverick, Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster charmed us with squabbling reminiscent of an old screwball comedy. Here, it doesn't matter if Huck wins or loses. He can always try another round of speed golf and play in next year's tournament.
The film also has a weird sense of what constitutes good acting and drama. Take this remarkably short exchange between sisters Billie and Suzanne, which begins with them quietly folding clothes together:
Suzanne: "I hear Huck's doing really well in the tournament."
Billie: "Good … that's nice."
Are we supposed to sense indifference from Billie or a reluctant change of heart? Frankly, I think it's there to (clumsily) show time passing in the poker tournament.
This is not an unwatchable film, perhaps enjoyable for true poker fans, with an appealing cast to carry you through at least half of it. Bana is a capable leading man, his stone cold expression and piercing gaze giving him the perfect poker face. Duvall is enjoyable even if he's just coasting here, and Barrymore is charming despite playing the same sweetly naïve character once more.
At best, Lucky You is a movie rental or something to catch on cable. I'm reminded of a line from that Kenny Rogers poker song "The Gambler," though it just as well could have been advice for picking good movies: "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run."Discussion starters
- Huck's father tells him that he needs to live life like he plays cards and play cards like he lives his life. Do you agree that Huck plays too recklessly and lives his life too cautiously? What changes does he need to make?
- Director Curtis Hanson wanted to show that the skills needed to play poker are the opposite of the skills needed to foster a relationship. Is this true? Are there any similarities to playing cards and playing "the game of love?" How do we keep these two things separate in everyday life?
- Why is there a rift in the relationship between L.C. and Huck? What's keeping them from reconciliation? Does their relationship change by the film's end? If so, why has it changed?
- Daniel Negreanu, a Christian and a pro poker player with a cameo in this movie, has said that what they do isn't really gambling. They only play against other professionals, they're simply matching skills against them, and they're using their own money to back their work—not unlike being a stockbroker or playing a game/sport like baseball or football. Do you agree? Can Christians play poker with a clear conscience or is it a form of gambling?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Lucky You is rated PG-13 for some language and sexual humor. For a PG-13 film, it's surprisingly light on adult content. There's a little bit of bad language, but it's not excessive. The sexual humor probably refers to a male character with breast implants. Two characters sleep together, but are only shown in bed together the morning after.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.