Its heart is in the right place, but the individual parts that make up the whole of "Lucky You" fail to comfortably mesh together. As a drama revolving around the world of professional poker, the film is somewhat informative for viewers uninitiated in the rules of the game and invokes more simmering tension during the climax set at the World Series Poker Championship than the typical sports movie. As a character study of a professional gambler, writer-director Curtis Hanson (2005's "In Her Shoes
") and co-screenwriter Eric Roth (2005's "Munich
") are less astute; the protagonist lives his life in a deceptive manner that frequently careens out of control, and suggestions that he has changed by the end are unconvincing at best. And finally, as a love story set amidst the neon lights of Sin City, the core romantic relationship never develops or forms as much meaning as it clearly intends to.
Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) doesn't live his life from day to day, but from one high-stakes poker game to the next. Losing money as fast as he makes it, he wheels and deals his valuables at pawnshops and generally does whatever he can in order to make that all-important next bet. Huck calls it a profession, but it's aspiring singer Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore) who soon recognizes it's a compulsion. After an idyllic night spent together, Billie awakes to find that Huck has snatched the money out of her purse and lost it all in a game of Texas Hold 'Em. Understandably angry at first but a believer in his underlying goodness, Billie is soon drawn into a relationship with Huck that, in this viewer's eyes, is doomed from the start. Meanwhile, the World Series Poker Championship draws nearer, with Huck pitted against his own father, two-time winner L.C. (Robert Duvall).
Although filmed almost two years ago and delayed multiple times, "Lucky You" is not the disaster that such a troubled past might suggest. At the same time, it is not unclear why the release date has been bounced around so much. The movie is with few commercial prospects outside of the star power, and the only audience who might get something out of it are poker enthusiasts. The most recent theatrical trailer and television ads, nicely scored to John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me," focus on the story's romantic angle. They make the film look extremely appealing, which is the purpose of advertising, but the finished product doesn't come close to meeting expectations.
The poker scenes dominate the proceedings. They are well shot and quietly effective, told from the point-of-view of Huck, and integrate a subplot involving the strained father-son relationship between himself and L.C. While the outcome of their feud is hardly surprising, director Curtis Hanson does treat it with a level of maturity. Aided by a wonderfully precise turn from Robert Duvall (2005's "Kicking & Screaming
"), their rocky interactions, filled with Huck's resentments from the past and L.C. tough-love approach, are made crystal-clear even without spelling out exactly what L.C. did to the family.
By contrast, the emotional entanglements between Huck and Billie are contrived and the glorious Drew Barrymore (2007's "Music & Lyrics
") is saddled with an underwritten character who disappointingly doesn't grow beyond "love interest" status. Huck proves to be untrustworthy almost from their first meet-cute, and yet Billie, arguably the more interesting character of the two, foolishly keeps going back to him. What she sees in Huckhe lies and steals from her, for startersis anybody's guess, and the way their romance is wrapped up is as dishonest as he is.
As Huck, Eric Bana (2004's "Troy
") is charismatic on the outside, but he hasn't any control over a character who is presented as the "hero," but in many ways is just a dog with a serious gambling addiction. In the supporting role of Suzanne, Billie's older sister and friendly but cautious ex of Huck's, Debra Messing (2005's "The Wedding Date
") has glaringly found herself a victim of the cutting room floor; the trailer features her in more scenes than the actual movie does.
"Lucky You" beautifully captures the city of Las Vegas in all its glitzy and electric glory, courtesy of invaluable on-location shooting and picturesque cinematography by Peter Deming (2005's "Rumor Has It...
"). The attractiveness of the visuals, though, are at the service of a clunky, uneven narrative. The dialogue often clangs with inauthenticity"I thought I'd find you here," L.C. says to Huck after randomly entering a diner that his son is eating atand basic character actions are bizarrewhen Huck pays a visit to Suzanne's apartment, she exits the conversation by abruptly turning out the lights and going to bed without even showing him to the door. As for the hopeful way the story is concluded, director Curtis Hanson does not earn Huck's supposed character arc. He wants the viewer to believe Huck is a reformed man who has learned his lesson, but considering the evidence, there is no reason to suspect he won't be right back at the poker table moments after the end credits roll. There is a good motion picture hiding somewhere beneath the surface of "Lucky You," but it hasn't found its way to the screen.