High-stakes poker players are one ugly-ass bunch. They're either gaunt, pasty and pear-shaped, like they've managed to shape-shift themselves into the form of a vinyl La-Z-Boy recliner, or they're lanky, shiny, sleazy dudes with pockmarked, orange skin. Whether they've seen too many or too few UV rays, chances are they'll be draped in some loose, sheer, synthetic shirt adorned with a fireball or palm-tree print, if at all possible off of which their copious perspiration will easily glide, like vegetable oil off Teflon.
For all its faults, the new poker drama Lucky You knows intimately what cardsharks look like. Mixing real-life pro players with a troupe of convincingly haggard, de-glammed character actors, director Curtis Hanson has come up with a vision of Las Vegas that's neither the swingin' fantasyland of the Ocean's 11 movies, nor is it the gleeful sleaze-o-rama wallow of Showgirls. This is a Vegas that both Strip haters and the Nevada Tourism Commission will endorse: Whether you've been there once or a dozen times, you will recognize this sordid cast of characters.
Whether or not you care about them is another matter. Written by Hanson and Eric Roth, Lucky You traffics in the sort of standard-issue father-son angst that's been around since the chip-on-the-shoulder melodramas of the '50s (if not longer): A slick professional gambler named Huck (Eric Bana) fights both for and against the affections of his deadbeat dad L.C. (Robert Duvall), with the impending World Series of Poker to provide the inevitable showdown.
As is his trademark, Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile) is far more interested in character than plot. For the film's first half, he propels Huck through a world of givers and takers a manic Robert Downey Jr. here, a phlegmatic Horatio Sanz there and you get the feeling that Lucky You is going to become one of those great "night in the life" films where we drop in on a vivid milieu and a handful of memorable people. It's all directed with a minimum of flash and fanfare; the unadorned shooting style makes the poker scenes and there are many of them all the more intense.
But while Bana's dead-eyed, pitch-black gaze may work wonders when the chips are down, it's useless in the film's token romantic-comedy scenes, where the actor seems to have taken Duvall's line, "You play cards the way you should lead your life," a bit too much to heart. A more-naive-than-usual Drew Barrymore doesn't help: If her sweetly hapless character an aspiring lounge singer transplanted from Bakersfield had a rich backstory when she accepted the script, it's since been sacrificed in favor of Hanson's languid, easygoing casino scenes. Certainly, Lucky You may offer a better view of the card table than ESPN: Only on a big screen can you savor every greasy pore and baggy, bloodshot eye up close. But you can see the same thing for free in Greektown any day of the week.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.