I’ve been kept out of Spider-Man 3 press screenings (I plan on catching it commercially on Saturday in Manhattan), but last night I finally saw Lucky You, the Eric Bana-Drew Barrymore-Robert Duvall poker movie that’s being thrown up against the Sam Rami behemoth as a kind of sacrificial lamb. Warner Bros. is calling it counter-programming, but they’re basically dumping it. But I can say without question that it’s a pretty good film, and by no stretch is it any kind of burn.
If I’d seen Spider-Man 3 by now I could write that Lucky You is a wiser, richer, smarter movie, and that it’s much more layered and interesting and recognizably human. But I haven’t so I can’t. But if David Poland and Todd McCarthy‘s Spider-Man 3 reviews are anything to go by, Lucky You is the film to catch this weekend if you’re looking for something that’s reasonably satisfying and in many ways engrossing. It is even moderately touching and lightly amusing at times.
I know, I know…who needs adjectives like “reasonably”: and “moderately,” right? 97% of the moviegoers out there don’t want a cool seasoned-atmosphere ride in casinos of Las Vegas this weekend — they want to be smothered in CG by way of a $270 million African elephant engineered by Sony that they know deep down is going to trample them and leave them unfulfilled. Go figure.
I’m no exceptiion. If I’d had a chance to see the IMAX screening of Spider-Man 3 last night, I would have gone — I admit it. But I’m glad I didn’t because I know without really knowing that I saw a better film.
Lucky You is an absorbing, smartly written, welterweight romantic drama about a crafty gambler named Huck Cheever (Bana) who hates his father, L.C. Cheever (Duvall), and is there fore strolling around the casinos in a state of emotional retardation, and therefore in a weakened state in terms of knowing himself and playing the game in a state of full-alert readiness.
As Duvall tells him at one point, “You live your life the way you play cards, and your play cards the way you should live your life.” Or something close to that.
Huck meets and falls in love with a nice girl named Billie (Barrymore), but spends part of the movie betraying her or letting her down, and the rest of the time screw- ing up and getting knocked back and always glaring at Duvall when they face each other at the poker table, but he eventually comes to a kind of emotional epiphany — a place where he feels settled or least less conflicted.
That, more or less, is the story, and if there’s a problem with the third-act resolution it’s that it seems to come a little too easily as far as the Bana-Duvall conflict is concerned. But the deep Vegas-ness of this movie is what counts, and that’s a result of the craft and the finely-tuned polish that comes with any Hanson film. It’s layered with tangy atmosphere, thought-out older-guy dialogue, engaging performances (Bana’s best since Black Hawk Down) and an aura of believability that gets you early on.
Lucky You has at least two great scenes — a bargaining-marketing duel in a pawn shop between Bana and Phyllis Somerville (Little Children), and a kind of emotional showdown between Bana and Duvall in a Vegas luncheonette.
Plus it has an assortment of amusing wiseguy characters (including a geeky gambler who’s been implanted with a pair of fake boobs as part of a bet) and a keen sense of mathematical engagement. Like any realistic poker flick it holds your attention by making you into a player — before you know it you’re doing your best to count cards and read faces and factor the odds and decide whether to raise or check or fold.
As gambling movies go, Lucky You is almost (and sometimes is) on the level of Robert Altman‘s California Split. It felt as satisfying as John Dahl‘s Rounders, and it’s a hell of lot better (for my money) than The Cincinatti Kid. I’m giving it a solid 8…okay, an 8.5.
Bana is no longer an accursed actor whose presence invites or guarantees financial failure. Not that anyone expects Lucky You to make any real money, but Bana’s Huck Cheever performance is…I’m not going to quite say masterful or revelatory, but I quite enjoyed his company and especially his poker intelligence from the get-go.
Principal photography on this hard-luck movie wrapped almost two years ago, and the final tab is something like $50 million bucks. It doesn’t feel like $50 million — more like $25 or $30 million, tops. It obviously tested in the toilet or Warner Bros. wouldn’t have paid for extra shooting (which I think happened late last year or the previous summer — nobody will tell me when.) Lucky You was supposed to come out 9.8.06, then 10.27.06 and then 3.16.07. And now it’s being thrown to the wolves this weekend. A baahing little lamb tethered to an iron post.
John Horn reported in the L.A. Times this morning that “some half-dozen different cuts [of the film] have failed to wow preview audiences, and the studio is now cutting back on its marketing push.”
A few months ago I called Lucky You the most unloved and unwanted Curtis Han- son gambling movie in U.S. history. It is still is that, but it’s a better-than- decent film, and if you can’t get into a particular Spider-Man 3 show this weekend you could do a lot worse than pay to see it,