Here's counterprogramming at its finest: Opening the same weekend as Spider-Man 3, the Las Vegas gambling drama Lucky You pumps pure oxygen into a multiplex sucked dry by the CGI-first/ask-questions-later superhero sequel. So what if my Lucky You theater was a third full and Spider-Man 3 was sold out all weekend, all over the world? When it comes to movies worth camping out for, make mine Curtis Hanson's.
Lucky You: Huck (Eric Bana) is a Vegas poker marvel who can quadruple $1,000 in a jolt by uncannily reading other people but who can't get his act together when the stakes are personal. Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore) is a Vegas neophyte who sings country songs much lonelier than she is to drunks staring at computer poker at a bar. Huck meets Billie, and they strike up a relationship that in any other movie would be the focal point. Instead, that honor goes to L.C. (Robert Duvall), Huck's estranged, two-timing, two-time-poker-champion dad. Every time Huck and Billie seem to find a groove, in walks L.C., and Huck's eyes go distracted. What Huck makes L.C. out to be and what Billie is act as the devil and angel on Huck's shoulders.
The whole ménage à trois plays out over the backdrop of the 2003 World Series of Poker tournament, famous for its winner (Tennessee amateur Chris Moneymaker) and its consequence (the game's boom in popularity). The setting gives Lucky You a bittersweet end-of-an-age feel perfectly in-tune with its characters' dramas.
Lucky You is not perfect: Bana and Barrymore's chemistry only gurgles even when it's supposed to be roaring, and there's a surfeit of gambling puns, beginning with the title, middling with the name Huck (sounds like "hock," which he does at pawn shops to raise funds), and ending with groaner lines like Billie's "making a good fold" when she breaks up with Huck.
And then, instant redemption, with another casino pun, no less: "Everyone over 21 gets what they deserve." And Bana and Duvall's chemistry flows like the loosest slots in town. (The acting duel during a one-on-one gambling jag between Huck and L.C. in a coffee shop is worth the price of admission.)
Director Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) wastes no movement in Lucky You. He makes the poker games personal and intimate with directing that's all business. Like the new Casino Royale, the poker in Lucky You is credible: Instead of a series of swapped haymakers, it's a measured process that builds toward resolution in calculated turns. (Gambling great Doyle Brunson is the film's poker consultant.)
Lucky You is littered with character actors and ESPN-poker familiars to the point where it sometimes feels more like Celebrity Poker Showdown than a movie. But even this works in the Lucky You's favor. One is reminded that all successful poker players are good actors. In a film set in the most contrived, false, overacted town on earth, Lucky You says, don't let the poker face fool you. The real show here is human, and it is substantial, and it won't let you go. What happens in Vegas stays with you. What happens in Lucky You is another Curtis Hanson winning hand.