Review: Lucky You

OK, so it isn't "Rounders," but "Lucky You" (IMDb listing) gets surprisingly far cracking open the world of poker and exploring the personalities that can't help but be completely drawn to the game.

Huck (Eric Bana, "Hulk") is a compulsive gambler, looking for a seat in the World Series of Poker, but unable to keep a winning streak burning long enough to earn the seed money. Into his life comes Billie (Drew Barrymore), an aspiring Vegas lounge singer who helps Huck find some focus. The obsessive player will need all the assistance he can get when he finds that his estranged, manipulative father, L.C. (Robert Duvall), is also looking for a win in the tournament.

Written by director Curtis Hanson ("8 Mile," "Wonder Boys," "In Her Shoes") with Eric Roth ("Munich"), the picture attempts to set up base camp as a romantic comedy, shoving Bana and Barrymore into roles that are ill-fitting and lack chemistry. It's a rather blatant way to inject something soft into a film about hard people (complete with eye-rolling poker-metaphor dialogue), and when it doesn't work, it grinds "Lucky You" to a full stop.

Far more involving is the rest of the film, which follows Huck and his itchy brand of fixation to the tables and back alleys of Vegas' finest and oldest casino floors. Hanson, employing his unmatched skill at bringing out the flavors of his locations, takes the viewer on a visually resplendent tour of downtown and suburban Las Vegas.

"Lucky You" contains fascinating scenes of Huck's desperation for money and respect. The script doesn't sugarcoat his tendencies toward betrayal for the chance to wet his fingers with some coin, but the writers are careful not to make him a monster either. In fact, all the gambling characters are given a fluid representation; these icy creatures of the night with a habit they like to pass off as their profession. Hanson digs into the pain of losing, the shame of defeat, and the fingers-through-hair lust for the next potential win. It's an understated depiction of hardcore gambling, while also respecting the art of the game and the temptation of combat. Hanson and Roth clearly hold poker in high regard, but they're not afraid to reveal the darker side of the participants to better detail the drama.

The film is set in 2003, and while that seems an odd choice at first, Hanson and Roth take their time rolling out the significance of the year. It seems 2003 is regarded as the last year the sport of poker was once played by kings. Especially in the tournament finale, Hanson draws some very distinct lines in the sand between the old guard who play with some semblance of honor and the new kids, the generation of social misfits who think a pair of sunglasses and a caulked expression is enough to get themselves a passport to badasslandia. It's a strong point (thrown alongside jabs at television coverage and youthful Internet poker rubes) made in a strong film.

Suffering from the worst marketing effort of 2007, "Lucky You" is a much more stable, intricate effort than the romantic pap being smeared across television and trailers suggest. Perhaps it isn't the definitive peek at poker, but it gets inside the minds of those who live and die by the game, and rises above cutesy screenwriting to become a picture well worth the time spent with it.

Filmfodder Grade: B+