With its unique combination of skill and chance, psychology and mathematics, and the fateful turning of the cards, poker can be the most exciting game around, though that excitement doesn't always translate to those who aren't in on the action. Only a couple of films, The Cincinnati Kid and Rounders, have risen to the challenge, because they understood both the lure and the grind of trying to live off a game in which a workday often means coming home with less money in your pocket, not more. Poker has been called "a hard way to make an easy living," and there's no stretch of film that demonstrates that more clearly than the first reel of Curtis Hanson's otherwise disappointing Lucky You. Opening at a pawn shop, where the gifted yet self-destructive Eric Bana hawks a digital camera for poker money, the film follows Bana as he "chips up," building on that small amount of money into a stack large enough to play in the "The Big Game." And then, with sickening swiftness, the turn of a single card takes him back to square one.
In that one sequence, Lucky You captures the Sisyphean struggle of being a professional gambler, but just following the gut-wrenching vicissitudes of the game isn't enough for the film, and the excitement evaporates in kind. The action flat-lines as soon as Bana meets a Vegas lounge singer, played by an egregiously miscast Drew Barrymore, and embarks on an affair that's less romance than hustle. Though initially attracted to Bana's lifestyle, Barrymore quickly sees the pitfalls in dating a poker player, especially one who's constantly dodging thumb-breaking creditors and recklessly blowing his bankroll. The root of Bana's problems lies in his cool relationship with father Robert Duvall, a legendary Doyle Brunson-like figure who casts a long shadow over his son. Their conflict leads to a final-table showdown at the 2003 World Series Of Poker.
Few directors are more skilled at evoking location than Hanson, whose strong sense of place—Pittsburgh in Wonder Boys, Detroit in 8 Mile, and '50s Los Angeles in L.A. Confidential, to name a few prominent examples—works to define characters through their environment. How curious, then, that Hanson's Las Vegas seems so thin and under-populated, with none of the neon-drenched vibrancy usually associated with that city. Even the World Series Of Poker, though not quite the circus in 2003 that it is today, looks here like a glorified home game. Curiously lifeless, Lucky You feels like poker without stakes; it goes through the motions with nothing to play for.