Lucky You is probably one of the oddest movies I have seen in a long time. It's not surreal, and nothing weird happens in the story, but tonally, it's an extremely confused motion picture. The studio would have you believe that it's a lovey-dovey chick flick where sweet and perky Drew Barrymore pursues dark and handsome Eric Bana with the glitz of Las Vegas illuminating their every kiss, and maybe upwards of 33% of the film actually meets that description. The rest of Lucky You, however, is a heavy character piece, linking relationship issues of various kinds to a gambling compulsion.
Bana plays Huck, a world-class poker player who is always one bad hand away from total ruin. He's what's known as a blaster, a hard-charging player who lets his emotions get the better of him and pursues all-or-nothing hands in search of a big win. In a gambling town that never shuts down, he never does, either. He's charming and he's smart, a winning combination when you need to bluff, but when you factor in the life skills he's sorely lacking, it makes him dangerous.
Of course, when Huck sees Billie (Barrymore) across a smoky room, he can't take his eyes off of her. He tries some of that reckless charm on her, and since she's an open soul who isn't afraid of taking in a stray puppy from time to time, it works. At first, Huck is just using her to get some cash to raise his stakes, but she's not so naïve that she doesn't notice, and when she calls him on it, the game gets more real than he's used to handling. Taken aback by her frankness and the rejection, he keeps chasing her, just like he keeps chasing the next pot every time his chips are down.
Sorry for all the gambling metaphors, but that's just something Lucky You does to a fella. I'm surprised I actually found any left, actually, because I'd have assumed that co-writers Eric Roth (The Good Shepherd, Munich) and Curtis Hanson used them all in their script. (Hanson also directed.) If you want to make your own game to play with your buddies when you go to see Lucky You, draft a list of all the card game clichés you can think of before going to the theatre. Set your bets and see who gets the most right. My inside tip for you is to aim high, because there are a lot of cheeseball lines in this movie. It's interesting, though, because like a good poker player, a good actor can pull off the obvious moves and somehow make them feel natural. When you look at the acting talent involved, I think it's not going to be hard to tell who has what it takes and who doesn't.
The unfair thing is that most of the worst lines come out in the romantic moments, which means they land squarely on Barrymore. She's outclassed here, and it's almost completely unnecessary. The relationship between Huck and Billie isn't really the meat of the movie. Like I said, only 33% of Lucky You is the romantic comedy they are trying to sell you. Another 33% is given over to Huck's relentless pursuit of the next win. He needs $10,000 to buy into the World Series of Poker, and though he manages to keep spinning the smallest beginnings into the finish he requires to get the seat, he always does something to blow the whole thing. The lure of another game is too much, he can't just walk away.
The final 33% of the movie entails the reason why. Huck's dad is L.C. Cheever, a two-time world champion of poker and a legend on the gambling circuit. L.C. is both the example that Huck lives by, and also the boy's white whale. Dear old dad was a real heel to mom, even stealing her wedding ring to pawn for some more playing money. Huck is trying to beat the game, to prove he's not his father, and to shove everything the codger ever did to him back in the old man's face.
L.C. is played by Robert Duvall, an acting legend and a cinematic champion in his own right. When the scenes come down to Duvall and Bana squaring off, Lucky You really begins to snap. Here are two top-notch actors going toe to toe, Bana pitting the steely determinism of youth against Duvall's wisdom and experience, and it's wonderful to watch. There is a scene where the two play a high-speed card game called Guts that is like a symphony of dysfunction. Unfortunately, the scene ends with dorky Drew Barrymore flouncing into the action, completely killing the ambience. I'll give the girl credit, she tries. She's definitely toned down the "aw, shucks" persona she's known for and tries to play it straight, but it comes across like she's intimidated by the caliber of people she's working with rather than being a truly considered choice. At times, I almost would wager that Hanson hedged his bets (sorry, there I go again) and purposely wrote her character as a dippy, Dr. Laura-quoting armchair psychologist so he could try to cover the bad acting by saying Billie is a space case. Except it doesn't work.
Plus, like I said, it's totally unnecessary. Lucky You would have been just fine without the romantic subplot. Make it a movie about a poker-playing father and son, and you'd have a solid drama. Part of it would be one of the best portraits about the unstoppable drag of gambling since Robert Altman's California Split, and the rest would be like Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly squaring off in Hard Eight. Hell, just recast the female lead and you'd probably have a cracker of a film. Debra Messing plays Drew Barrymore's older sister, and I'd have totally bought her as the love interest for Bana. Give her the girlfriend part, and you've dealt a hand I can play with.
Instead, we get a movie that has no idea what it wants to be. It's light, then it's dark, and then it's back to light. Even the pacing is weird. Some scenes are slow and contemplative, others rev up for comedy high jinks. (You can usually spot those as soon as Horatio Sanz enters the room.) I just don't know what Curtis Hanson was trying to do here. Worst case, he was trying to make a heavy drama and the studios beat him up and made him inject a love story to make it more commercial. A better theory may be that he was trying to bring together the two opposite poles of his career, the macho L.A. Confidential and the credible chick flick In Her Shoes, and combine them, synthesizing his two halves into one, melding the women's picture onto a masculine genre the way John M. Stahl grafted a film noir plot onto a Sirkian sudser back when he made Leave Her to Heaven in 1945. The difference is, Stahl makes gold out of it, and Hanson merely gets gold plating, but at least if this were the case, we could give Hanson credit for trying.
Again, it's just too bad. Lucky You is a film I really want to like a lot more than I did. If only it didn't fight so hard against establishing a clear tone, I'd be willing to rave about it. As it stands, it's got maybe a couple good cards showing, but not enough of a poker face to pull off the bluff.
(Gah! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It's just too easy to go there!)
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.