A film review by Craig J. Koban
LUCKY YOU ½
2007, R, 135 mins.
Huck Cheever: Eric Bana / Billie Offer: Drew Barrymore / L.C. Cheever: Robert Duvall / Michelle: Jean Smart / Suzanne: Debra Messing / Chico Banh: Kelvin Han Yee / Roy: Charles Martin Smith
Directed by Curtis Hanson / Written by Eric Roth and Curtis Hanson / Based on a story by Eric Roth
A few years ago when my country’s most popular sport - hockey - was stranded in a dreadful lockout that lasted a full season, I began to notice something really interesting: Sports stations, desperate to fill the now vacant hockey game time slots, started to air professional poker tournaments.
My first reaction to that was, “Geez, how utterly bereft of ideas are these stations when they reduce themselves to airing something as dry and boring as Poker games in place of NHL hockey?” I mean, the broadcast was essentially static, with six or so players gathered at a table playing the game they know best. Sure, money was on the line (and huge amounts of it) but poker just did not have the visceral allure of hockey. It did not seem all that exciting.
Then, something changed. I started to watch poker on TV more and more, so much so that I ended up buying my own poker set to have mini-poker tourneys at home. My poker game of choice was the same game as shown on the sports broadcasts – Texas Hold ‘Em – and the stakes between my friends and I were usually nothing more monetarily valuable than pride. The game’s appeal grew insatiable the more I played. Soon, there could be nothing more exhilarating than getting pocket cowboys in my hand, seeing two ladies on the first flop, and securing my full boat on the river card with a third lady, securing my victory.
If you did not understand a word of what I just wrote, then LUCKY YOU may or may not be the film viewing experience for you.
Certainly, the film ostensibly is about Texas Hold ‘Em and the crafty and cagey players that play it, not to mention that a certain cursory knowledge of poker is a required to understand many of the scenes in it. There have been many good to great movies as of late that have used the game in small or large part in their stories (CASINO ROYALE and, to a much bigger degree, ROUNDERS, one of the best of the more recent card-shark films), but LUCKY YOU is a real gem in the sense that it displays an uncanny knack for understanding the game of Hold ‘Em and knowing the subtle psychology of what makes the game exciting to watch. More than any other film about the “sport”, LUCKY YOU is incredibly spot-on in terms of its presentation. The film breathes with a real verisimilitude about how the game is played and what it takes to be a great player. More times often than not, it wisely underlines the fact that the best poker player is often the best judge and reader of character.
Oh, luck has a lot to do with it too.
Keep in mind, the film is also about the oftentimes-addictive nature of the game and how a climate of obsession can develop around it. Furthermore, LUCKY YOU impeccably understands that the heart of the real, hard-core gambler is not in tune with winning money (although that’s a definite perk), but more with being a part of the action…the thrill of besting those that claim superiority to you. In a way, this natural high to achieve victory is as addictive to a gambler as booze is to an alcoholic and it's that dynamic that makes LUCKY YOU a very insightful and strong character piece. The game of cards is shown as having larger ramifications beyond winning big pots and claiming dominance; oftentimes, it can affect you and those around you, with equal parts satisfaction and scorn.
The film works so efficiently primarily because of its low key and evocative direction (by Curtis Hanson, who has made such far-ranging and terrific films as 8 MILE, WONDER BOYS, and his multiple Oscar nominated L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) and by its perceptive and well realized script (by Eric Roth, who has penned equally redolent films such as FORREST GUMP and 2005’s masterful MUNICH). MUNICH in particular demonstrated Roth’s impeccable handling of layered themes and strong characters. That film probed insightful and fascinating issues, such as is it morally right for a victimized country to seek revenge on another nation that has wronged it, not to mention that it dived deep into the hearts of its character’s addictions. The personas in that film became plagued by their own inner addictions, so much so that it affected how they felt about themselves and how they interacted with others around them.
LUCKY YOU shares MUNICH’s thoroughly astute command of the wounded psyches of its characters. Granted, the film is nowhere near as dark in tone as Spielberg’s, nor is it a stunning and vicious exposé on the terrible mindset of the addicted gambler. Yet, what LUCKY YOU does exceedingly well is showing how characters' addiction to the game of poker unalterable affects both themselves and how they relate to others around them. In a way, their lives become one endless, self-absorbed odyssey into one-upmanship. Meaningful relationships take a back door to the intoxicating draw of how the game of poker makes its players gamble in life as well.
No more is this felt then in one scene in LUCKY YOU in the form of a brilliant prologue where we see Huck Cheever (in a quietly strong and commanding performance by Eric Bana) enter a pawn shop with a boxed digital camera. He walks over to the shop owner and asks if he can get $300 for it. She responds with an offer fall less lucrative. What he then does is fascinating: using all of his cunning and astute powers of charisma and persuasiveness, Huck engages in a ingenious monologue as to why the owner should give him $300. His reasoning has such a stunning clarity and logic and he engages in a long proof as to how buying his boxed camera would actually improve her business for her other cameras. Huck, with his good looks, charm, and tactile use of words, provides a very convincing argument, not to mention that he easily could be a poker mastermind.
Huck is, in fact, a wonderfully talented – if not cocky and risk taking – Texas Hold ‘Em player who spends most of his lonely days looking for games here and there and trying to win money any way he can. He has such a pin-point focus for the game and knows how to read a person with stunning clarity, but he has a real problem with letting his addictive drives lose the money he earns throughout his gambling exploits. He certainly has guts at the table, willing to bet the farm when he has nothing and knows that his opponent has a flush. He is not so much driven by the yearning for fame and riches. Rather, he’s drawn to the game itself and how it can create an atmosphere of dominance over people.
Maybe that has something to do with his father. He learned everything he knows about poker from his dad playing at the kitchen table as a child for pennies and nickels. He never was able to beat his dad, nor did his father ever let him win. That alone fuels his addiction to be better. The magnetism of gambling fuelled his future life’s purists, leaving very little room for love interests or starting a family. Poker has engulfed so much of his every day existence that he has pawned off all - and I mean all – of his furniture and most of his most precious keepsakes just to stay in on the Las Vegas action. His weakness as a player is that he wins considerably, but never knows when to walk away with his money. He loses a lot too. His most emotionally wounding loss was always to his father. The thought of staring him down and beating him, man to man, breeds his desires.
The father, L.C. (played in one of those fluently strong and powerful performances by Robert Duvall) has always had a contentious relationship with his son. L.C. left his wife early on in life - something Huck never really forgave him for - and supposedly committed sins against her that Huck will seemingly never forgive. Huck even has more contempt for dear old dad for who he became. L.C. is a living legend of the poker world, winning the World Series of Hold ‘Em twice. He is able to walk into any casino and be flooded with awe and praise. With his slick backed hair, squinty eyes, and sure-fire quirkiness, Duvall is perfectly cast here as an old, crusty, winner-take-all go-getter. Nothing would give Huck more pleasure than beating his dad…just once.
Huck himself tries to gather the $10,000 buy-in fee for the next World Series tournament, but seems to fail constantly. Actually, he is able to secure the money on far too many occasions, only to carelessly lose it when he should have stuck it in his pocket. Even when he manages to get a deep-pocketed Las Vegas man to bank his entrance fee, he manages to lose it in a matter of hours. It could be his rebellious edge that attracts Huck to the eyes of a new girl in town, a cute lounge singer named Billie (played with soft spoken appeal by Drew Barrymore).
Billie is a new gal in town who is not really all that familiar with Huck and his questionable legacy. She falls for him fast, even at the ill will of her sister (Debra Messing, in a fairly small part). She initially shares in his enthusiasm for poker and the thrill of the win. What’s there not to be taken in by? There is one very amusing sequence where she joins Huck where he takes a bet as to whether he can run three miles and shoot 78 or better in 18 holes in less than three hours for $10,000. Billie is the timekeeper, but when Huck appears victorious Billie whimpers that the clock says three hours and two seconds. Huck is furious with the fact that she could not “help him out” and lie. But Billie is no liar and she begins to harbor bad feelings towards Huck, even more so when he borrows…okay…steals money from her in hopes of making more and then loses it all. Huck is capable of being a charmer, but his addictive tendencies make him a real dick.
Huck’s daddy is no better. His partially estranged relationship with his son hits a few roadblocks to recovery, especially in one cold and vindictive scene in a coffee shop where he gambles all of Huck’s money away from him in a pick-up game. It does not take Nostradamus to see that these two will inevitably play against one another in the World Series in the film’s third act. That is of no surprise. Yet, what is surprising is how LUCKY YOU culminates in the big, “final match” (a staple cliché of sports genre films) and does not allow for itself to get trapped in a predictable outcome. During these moments (which are directed with exacting precision and realism by Hanson; these games feel authentic) the characters grow to understand that the key to salvaging their relationship with one another may not be in beating the other at the table. I will not spoil what happens, but neither Huck nor L.C. wins or loses. The result of their head to head game is effective and unexpected.
LUCKY YOU was a film that sat on the studio shelves in a state of limbo for almost a year (its filming culminated almost two years ago), which in itself is a shame because it truly is a wonderfully mounted character piece. By diving head on into the attractive appeal of high stakes poker and dealing with some of the negative windfall with being obsessed by it, director Curtis Hanson and writer Eric Roth are able to forge a solidly captivating and keenly observant film. With pitch perfect performances by Robert Duvall and Eric Bana (the former having a field day as a veteran Hold ‘Em player), and a highly realistic presentation of the wildly popular game, LUCKY YOU gets the look and tone of its sporting universe down flawlessly. More importantly, it manages to be about something more. It wisely points out how two characters' growing obsessions with a game can lead to some salvation in each other’s eyes. In this way, LUCKY YOU is a rare genre film with legitimate morality tale trappings that never feel too saccharine or trite. As a father/son tale, a love story, and a poker flick out of a fanboy's dream, LUCKY YOU goes all in and comes out winning.