Lucky Me
By Noel Vera

Lucky You
Dir: Curtis Hanson (2007)

You have to give credit to director Curtis Hanson; he tries his level best not to repeat himself. After making his bones with suspense ("The Bedroom Window;" "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle;" "The River Wild") he does a noir epic ("L.A. Confidential,") that wins him a few Oscar nominations, then follows that up with a comedy on writers ("Wonder Boys"), a gritty urban fairy-tale about a rap artist ("8 Mile"), and now this.

I find the post "L.A." films to be the most interesting ("8 Mile" being my favorite so far)--Hanson attempting the unenviable task of throwing away the crutches of genre filmmaking (suspense, noir), to focus on character and human relationships.

It doesn't help matters that poker is hardly the most visually lively of games. Critics have compared this picture to Robert Rossen's classic "The Hustler," often unfavorably, and no wonder: with all the overhead lamps hanging over pool tables the players look almost Bergmanish in their shadowy, black-and-white intensity (poker on the other hand occurs in a bright space lit solely for the benefit of TV cameras).

And you can do trick shots with pool, shots that Rossen photographs simply, the better to capture their impossibility (my favorite has the cue ball put such english on a ball that it shot forward, curved around backwards in a small parabola, and sent a third ball into its pocket).

Poker isn't like that; if anything, the drama is in the immobility of the players, the cards held up or face down, the mystery of one's hand, whether you hold nothing or a royal flush--or are able to convince your opponent that you're holding a royal flush.

Hanson does well enough with the game sequences. He has Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) introduce the intricacies of Texas hold 'em to Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore); Huck points out that much of the game depends on one's reading of the body language and 'tells' of the opponent and maintains that poker is a game of skill, not chance (Huck's downfall is in not recognizing that it's really a mix of both). Hanson's camera closes in on the players' faces, a mix of recognizable Hollywood character actors (Bana, Jean Smart, Robert Duvall as LC, Huck's father) and real celebrity players (Sam Farha, Doyle Brunson), and the sheer brinksmanship on display makes for compelling drama.

That, and the details--the knuckles rapped on felt in a call-and-reply; the insider slang ("blind;" "double-blind;" "check;" "river"); the sense that one is in a separate but equal world few of us even suspect exist, but would probably like to visit if we ever did. That Hanson can do this to poker-- to the sight of men at a table, holding cards--is an achievement in itself; more, he brings what he knows about cutting and shooting thrillers into play here--the games are intricately staged and exciting, not despite the intricacy but because of it. The terminology and gestures add a unique flavor to the action.

As for the plot--well, that's actually the weakest part of the film. Bana and Barrymore are easy on the eyes, and Bana has a laser focus of a stare he's used through "Hulk," "Munich" and even that deadly bore "Troy" (he looked as if his Hector could whip Brad Pitt's Achilles with his big toe), and Barrymore has what can only be described as one of the most empathic faces on the Hollywood screen--every emotion on her face comes across as unfiltered and direct, unmeditated by thought or pretension or acting philosophy.

Unfortunately, the two can't quite bring their romance to life--he's afraid of commitment, she becomes his moral compass; the arc of their relationship is about as unpredictable and cliché-free as sunrise.

Hanson does have a lovely way of not letting his actors build up melodramatic steam; instead he has them grapple a bit, go off in oblique, unhappy directions, come back later for more wrestling. The figureheads, however, remain figureheads (he wayward; she morally superior); maybe what was needed was a more mercurial actor, someone who can charm us same time he scares us with his temper (Bana's an interesting casting choice, in that he's anything but temperamental).

The lack becomes sharper when Robert Duvall comes into play. Easily one of the most authoritatively easygoing presences around, Duvall can simply take over a scene by leaning back and giving you a wink; you believe Bana would feel inferior to the man--what's more difficult to believe is that Bana can at any point hold his own.


Actually, Huck's relationship with L.C. is another problematic cliché--the upstart youngster living in the shadow of a living legend of a father (Didn't Duvall deal with this already in "The Great Santini?" Didn't Stallone deal with this, and--gasp--relatively more effective poignancy?). Duvall not only wipes Bana off the screen, he does so while easing himself effortlessly into the milieu--when the camera pans across the table, from player to player to Duvall, you don't feel any disconnect; he belongs to the poker table as naturally and inevitably as chips. Bana tends to stand out as a Greek God type come to Earth to play; Duvall looks as if he's one of the boys--the meanest, orneriest, baddest ass of the lot, too.

"Lucky You" is so good it's disappointing it isn't better; one would think that Hanson, eschewing the obvious and avoiding most clichés, would go all the way and strike out in his own direction. It's not as if he doesn't have models he can follow, or at least take inspiration from--I'm thinking of something as recent as Tian Zhuangzhuang's "Wu Qingyuan" (The Go Master, 2006), where Zhuangzhuang has to deal with an even less visually appealing game, Go (In terms of intricacy it's to chess what advanced calculus is to basic arithmetic--the number of possible games in Go reportedly exceeds the number of known atoms in the universe).

Zhuangzhuang adopts an interesting approach--he foregoes depicting the games altogether and attempts to evoke the mindset of a man playing Go--the fanatical, almost insane focus on the board, to the exclusion of all else (even, at one instance, the atom bomb).

Then there's Robert Altman's "California Split," for my money the finest film ever made on the subject. Altman not only does away with clichés, he does away with the cliché of a narrative altogether--the film is a series of vignettes about two gamblers (George Segal, Elliot Gould) who meet, become friends, go to Reno and have a Big Game.

What happens at the game, however, isn't quite what one expects--the look on Segal's face as he holds his winnings is haunting, unforgettable (What was he thinking? Why does he do what he does?). There are women in the film, but romantic attachment is a none-starter; everyone's too absorbed in their own schtick to feel romantic about anything, though there's a scene where Gould consoles Gwen Welles by telling her about the size of a blue whale's tongue that's beautifully, tenderly oddball.

Altman had the guts to pull this gossamer creation together almost out of thin air, and in a mainstream Hollywood film; Hanson has yet to do anything as amazing. "Lucky You" is a brave try--bravish--and should be appreciated as such; one wishes one can appreciate it more.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 05/11/07.
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May 18, 2007