It was going to happen sooner or later. With the increasing popularity of Texas Holdem, as a casino attraction, televised entertainment, and pastime, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood tackled this growing phenomenon. Sure, there have been plenty of Poker movies made in the past, but the high stakes world of Texas Holdem and the eccentric personalities that are addicted to it are a universe unto their own. Even the middle passage of Casino Royale proved that the game makes for exciting screen entertainment.
Lucky You is probably the first Hollywood movie to tackle the world of Holdem but unfortunately, it’s not the best. As a Hollywood product, it’s entertaining and worthwhile, but a movie like this deserves something more authentic and wise.
The film takes place in Las Vegas around 2003, when the Holdem craze was about to take off. We meet Huck (Eric Bana), a talented yet reckless card player who spends his days playing the Holdem tables at the casinos. Huck is your standard compulsive gambler type, always borrowing money from people and always blowing it at the tables. He has the skills and intelligence to play the game, yet his ego always presses him to take wild chances at the table.
While playing at the Casinos, Huck runs into his father, L.C. (Robert Duvall) L.C. is the two-time World Series of Poker Champion and has a rocky relationship with his son. Huck never forgave his father for walking out on him and his mother (he also might resent his father for instilling the spirit of a reckless card player into his soul). L.C. tries to reconcile with Huck and even tries to coach his Poker skills, but Huck stubbornly keeps his distance.
Things also grow emotional when Huck meets Billie (Drew Barrymore), a struggling nightclub singer who cares about him but is appalled by his gambling ways. Yet a romance still grows between them, all while Huck works his way into the World Series of Poker, where he’ll obviously have to face his father at the tables.
The main problem with Lucky You is that it appears to be a jazzed-up, Hollywood version of the Holdem universe where as it would’ve been better off being gritty and brutally honest. The film was directed by Curtis Hanson, but it could’ve been directed by anyone. What’s missing is Hanson’s talent for bringing authenticity and realism to his landscapes. Whether it’s the ‘50’s cop land of L.A. Confidential or Detroit’s rap underground of 8 Mile, Hanson’s camera gives the feeling of real life wherever it goes. That quality is strongly lacking in this film.
Another problem is the casting of Eric Bana. Bana is a likeable actor who has shown considerable skill in Troy and Munich. As Huck, he looks the part, but he is too nice and too straight in the role. What’s lacking is the roguish charm and charisma we’d expect from a character like this. He doesn’t appear to have that card shark spirit, including the tics and eccentricities that come with it.
Perhaps Matthew McConaughey or Josh Lucas would’ve worked better in the role. At the beginning of the film, I thought Robert Downey, Jr. would’ve been perfect in the lead, so I was utterly surprised to discover that he appears in an otherwise pointless cameo as a zany operator of Las Vegas 900 numbers. The other actors, meanwhile, get a good handle on their roles. Barrymore is sweet and convincing, while Duvall is pitch perfect as an old pro with wisdom and experience to dispense.
The saving grace of the film is ultimately the excitement of the actual card games. Hanson films these scenes very well, giving the viewer the intimate feeling of actually sitting at the Poker table with these characters. I also liked how the final World Series of Poker scenes are handled. Hanson gives us the feeling of the cameras and competition that overflow at this mega-sized event. There’s a nice scene in which Huck and L.C. finally confront each other in a men’s room. Of course it all comes down to a final showdown between Huck and L.C. at the big table, but the outcome is not what you’d expect it to be and is satisfying because it’s true to the characters and not to plot mechanics.
Let’s face it, you either find Texas Holdem entertaining or you don’t. If you’re one of those fans who are fascinated by the game and watches endless amounts of it on television, you’ll probably enjoy Lucky You. If you’re not, then I’m afraid there’s little you’ll enjoy about this film. This film does nothing that The Color of Money, Tin Cup, or Rounders did a whole lot better. It’s a good poker movie, but it could’ve been great.