10 May 2007

UNLUCKY IN CARDS, IN LOVE, IN THE AUDIENCE

It's a sign of the unmistakable cinematic power of Lucky You that when I went looking for the poster for this review, I couldn't remember what it was called.

I couldn't remember what it was about.

And I had some sense that Drew Barrymore was in it, and wasn't all that good.

This was a mere eighteen hours after I walked out of the theater.

My memory has come to back to me, happily, and thus I get to face the prospect of expounding upon this exceptionally personality-free entry in the CV of director Curtis Hanson, who once upon a time was phenomenal, before turning interestingly problematic, and who now really needs to spend some time staring hard at himself and figuring out how to get on track.

The biggest problem with Lucky You, as I see it, is that it's really three distinct movies, and Hanson only puts any effort into one of them. That film, the one that opens things up, is the story of Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), who is a professional gambler, and is very good at making huge pots of money only to instantly piss them away showing off. We get to see this pretty much instantly in the first scene, Huck at a pawnbroker, snowballing her into giving him more money for a camera. It's not anyone's idea of high art, but Bana has an almost Clooneyesque gift for being a fast-talking charmer, and Hanson keeps the pace of the scene pretty high (or maybe it's his editors who do that; either way, it's peppy), and on the whole, a healthy bit of fun.

The film peaks there, but whenever the story returns to a poker table or other arena for Huck to show off his facility with bluffing, it manages to pick up a bit; Bana has that same clever energy and Hanson always brings a fun, tight, even tense pace. Too bad that those scenes get pretty thin on the ground once the other two films get going: the one where Huck falls in love with newly arrived Vegas resident Billie Offer, who we know is quirky because Drew Barrymore is playing her; and the one where Huck and his dad, the world's greatest living poker player or something like that, L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall) fight over the older man's shabby treatment of his dead ex-wife and her bitter son, leading to a shockingly unpredictable ending in which Huck bayonets his father to death in a filthy strip club. Hah, I meant a shockingly unpredictable ending in which the men face off across a poker table and come to understand and forgive each other, and now I've given it away and you don't need to see the film, and you're quite welcome.

There's a moment when Billie connects the dots that Huck and L.C. are father and son, and the reason she figures this out is that when Huck sees the older man, his eyes go "all quiet." This is a fairly undistinguished moment in the film, not particularly stupid nor clever in the overall scheme of things, but I mention it because I think it describes the film. Like Huck, it is at its best when there's no messy personal business to deal with, when it's just about the mechanics of the game. As soon as it has to face the real world, and deal with "emotions," it goes completely slack.

There is no clearer sign of this than Barrymore, whom I often do not like, but I am always willing to admit that she brings a lot of spark to her performances. There's not much of that spark, although it's not totally absent, it's surpassing muted, as though she were acting through a hangover most days. And on a set that brought Drew Barrymore a little bit down, Robert Duvall doesn't have a chance to be anything other than gruff and mumbly. Bana, still trying to become a movie star, rises above his costars, as I said before; but he really only does so when they're not on screen.

Curtis Hanson doesn't do the actors any favors by shooting the whole film in the most anemic way conceivable. He's traditionally been a great director of place, capturing the tiny elements of setting that make the mise en scène a whole, enveloping experience. The attention to detail in Lucky You, outside of a few choice scenes, is non-existent. Few cities are more iconically-defined than Las Vegas, but Hanson doesn't capture the city - even the grotesque Next served up the essence of the town in a more satisfying way, but this is just watching the actors act in front of whatever space they happen to be standing in front of. Perhaps it's that Hanson knows how many films have been shot in Las Vegas, and so he can't work up the enthusiasm to shoot another one there. I can't guess.

Much more crippling, is what Hanson, and his co-writer Eric Roth (of such palpably tight screenplays as Munich and The Insider), do to the pace of the film. There's only about seventy minutes of story, tops, to be told here. So the rest of the more than two-hour running time is padding and repetition. In a nutshell, Huck needs to raise $10,000 to enter the World Series of Poker. Which he does within the first ten minutes of the film; then he spectacularly loses it all. A bit later, he wins it again; then he spectacularly loses it all. He gets someone to spot him the money; then he spectacularly loses it all. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat. The first couple of times it happens, it works as intended, to show us that obsession and gambling are a dangerous mix. Eventually, it just turns into the most blatant kind of wheel-spinning.

The problems aren't just structural: several sequences seem like they go on for twice their natural running time. The most egregious offence is a bit where Huck bets another gambler that he can run five miles and play 18 holes of golf in 3 hours; I did not time this sequence, but it felt positively endless, showing us Huck running from hole to hole, playing the "will he make it?!" gambit three times, and generally sucking the film's inertia into a black hole. There's no way to blame anyone other than the director for this sort of hideous pacing misstep, and it happens several times in several different scenes.

I find myself wondering if the problem is that Hanson, Bana et al knew that this film was going to be dated before it opened, before they even started working on it (it was shot in early 2006 for a September release, which turned into a March release, which turned into now). Setting a film during the 2003 World Series of Poker practically begs us to recall that it's been that long since poker was "hip," and at this point it takes quite a bit more than just showing poker to make a good film. I don't know what it takes, other than that I'm quite certain it's not the flaccid character dramas that course through this film. A pronounced sense of "why bother?" infects most every moment of Lucky You, and frankly, I can't think of any reason to try answering that question.

5/10

4 comments:

Rebecca said...

And do you agree with me about Robert Downey, Jr.?

Pat "Souljacker" King said...

Agree with you about WHAT about Robert Downey Jr? I'm INTRIGUED!

Tim said...

"Robert Downey, Jr. was incredibly pointless, and I really hope that's the last time I EVER have to use that phrase."

Amen. This is an objective truth, like "there is a sun" or "it is May," not a matter of opinion.

Pat "Souljacker" King said...

WOW. That's a head-spinner for me. Usually he's the only thing I care to watch in movies of low quality. And I think I've stated that I've yet to see the movie in which watching him does not make me glad to be watching that (or at least, "a") movie. But then I have a lot of growing up to do.