For a single, strangely mesmerizing scene, Robert Downey Jr. shows up in Lucky You. As a scam artist egregiously named Telephone Jack, he hardly moves, but sits at a bar in Vegas, where he has an assortment of phones with labels like “900-Defense” or “900-Mental,” listening to three or four calls at the same time, producing stock but compassionate-sounding advice for callers in distress. His old friend, dead-broke poker player Huck (Eric Bana), stops by to ask him for a loan, “to get me going again.” Jack’s heard this plaint before, and doesn’t entertain it for a second. Instead, he puts Huck on a call, as “our relationship and commitment expert.” When Huck blows off the caller in a hurry, Jack stops him: “Rule number one,” he instructs. “Be a listener.”
The scene is sweet for a number of reasons, not least being the little ballet that Downey manages among Jack’s phones, his eyes darting, his hands in constant motion, his mind plainly in gear. Huck, by contrast, lumbers, so intent on his single purpose that he can’t keep two ideas in his head at the same time. This is his gambler’s curse, of course, which the movie goes on to demonstrate repeatedly: he steals money from his girlfriend, he challenges his famous cardplayer father, he misses a dealer’s mistake because he’s so focused on his opponent in relation to his own supreme skill. Huck can’t even pretend to listen: he’s perpetually in pursuit of his next fix.
That Jack never comes back, and the film instead follows Huck out the door (without his loan), is a disappointment. Not only does Huck’s story lack the grace and energy so visible in Jack’s four minutes on screen, but the movie’s very structure turns clunky too. Huck’s compulsion sets him down at tables for hours on end (late night-early morning sessions are marked by waiters delivering plates of scrambled eggs to players unable to pause even for meals); the camera watches him watching other players who watch him back, the shot-reverse shots poky and elementary; occasionally, to suggest “time passing,” the frame picks up a passer-by, following him through a casino room until he walks by the very table you were just looking at. The cuts are obvious, the rhythms sluggish, and the dialogue redundant (by the time the big showdown arrives at the World Series of Poker, the TV announcer is repeating every move and line (“Call,” says Huck, followed by the announcement, “Huck calls”), as if the movie’s afraid you’ve missed lines the first time.
The slow pace is exacerbated by the rehashed plot. Huck is a soul in need of redemption, which arrives in two forms: the father, LC (Robert Duvall) who needs to be forgiven, and the girlfriend, Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore) who doesn’t appear to need anything but falls for Huck because that’s her job here. The daddy story has roots that have to do with the predictably dead mother, apparently so worn out by her ex-husband’s compulsion that her heart broke, but not before she passed on her pain and sadness to her son. Huck has taken up daddy’s profession (and not “English teacher,” which is what LC was before he started gambling), which makes everything double-stakes, because LC is a two-time world champ, invited to play on the Riviera because poker’s TV popularity means the tournaments need “celebrity gamblers” (the French, mutters LC, both creepy and disdainful, “They hate our politics, but they love our games”). Now Huck has to resent dad and live up to his legend — plainly impossible.
(L-R) Poker pros SAM FARHA and CHAU GIANG flank L.C. Cheever (ROBERT DUVALL) at the poker table
At the same time, he meets Billie, whose sister Suzanne (a teeny and unnecessary part for Debra Messing, no longer a movie star following The Wedding Date) warns her not to like Huck because he’s a gambler and opportunist. Ah well. Just arrived from Bakersfield, Billie has a ’40s hairstyle and costumes (she first appears in a neat little red polka dot number Gene Tierney could have worn) and gets a gig singing on her first day in town: that it’s a dive that seats about 12 customers makes her couple of performances look both poignant and weird, like she’s walked into the wrong movie.
Unlike Downey, Barrymore appears in multiple scenes and, despite her overwhelming charm, poor Billie looks lost in every one of them. To demonstrate her interest in Huck, she lends him money to win a poker game (he’s desperate to make the World Series’ $10,000 entry fee), times his race through a golf course to win a bet with Ready Eddie (Horatio Sanz), double-takes broadly when introduced to his friend Lester (Saverio Guerra), who has had breast implants to win a bet. She’s even willing to take a very conveniently timed cell phone call at a diner, just when LC shows up, and stays off screen long enough for them to hash through the past, play poker, and argue. Then she pops back just in time to tell off LC concerning good fathering. As if all this brilliant supportive girlfriend business isn’t enough, she wears goofy platform sandals — trotting along on the golf course without even seeming to teeter.
You have to love Billie, and you understand why Huck wants to. What’s hard to see is what she sees in him. Because she’s in a movie where she’s a sign of Huck’s reconciliation with his dad, she has precious little to do but react to her man’s needs and misbehaviors. When he steals from her to fund a night at the poker table, she flounces, “I’m not a bank. You can’t make deposits and withdrawals whenever you want”; when he comes to watch her perform, she sings, “You think you’re a real man, but you’re a real fool.” Her lines are badly written, her plot options limited. If only she could meet Telephone Jack, who could at least pretend to listen to her.