"Lucky You" begins smashingly as off-his-game poker ace Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) connives a Las Vegas pawnshop proprietor into raising her price for his digital camera. Huck is a glib trickster at loose ends and yet he appears in perfect control of the situation. He doesn't just have a poker face – he has a poker body.
Huck – short for Huckleberry – approaches everything in life as a win-lose proposition and so his daily ups and downs keep him perpetually on edge. Every win portends a loss; every loss brings him back to the playing field.
Director Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote the script with Eric Roth, is enamored with the notion that gambling – specifically, poker – is a window into the human soul. We are told over and over that Huck takes large risks at the poker table and few in his life. He's a commitment-phobic heartbreaker. All of which means, of course, that he will be required to meet his match.
Enter Drew Barrymore's Billie Offer. (How do screenwriters come up these names?) The sister of a Vegas acquaintance of Huck's, the not especially talented Billie is in town to make it as a singer. Warned about Huck, she falls for him anyway because, being pure in heart, she sees him for the scared romantic he really is.
It's not clear why such a total innocent would venture to Vegas, of all places, to jump-start her meager career. But we know the real reason – the filmmakers want her in Sin City to cleanse Huck of his wicked ways. Considering that Hanson made "L.A. Confidential" and "Wonder Boys," two of the best and smartest Hollywood movies of the last 10 years, "Lucky You" seems a bit gaga by comparison.
It might have seemed less so if the Huck-Billie duet didn't seem so rote. She falls for him, he does a bad thing, he makes it up to her, she's wary, he opens up. The only thing missing from all this is a genuine connection between the performers. Barrymore is never less than charming, but she's never much more than that, either. And Bana, who wears his worn, black-leather jacket as if it were a second skin, is – with one significant exception – more compelling as an image than as an actor.
That exception centers on Huck's poker legend father L.C., who is also in Vegas to compete in the World Series of Poker. As played by Robert Duvall, he lifts the movie – and Bana – every moment he's on screen.
The good-bad blood between father and son is the central crutch propping up "Lucky You," but Duvall has such bone-deep authenticity in the role that he made me forget how schematic the scenario is. (At one point Billie offers L.C. one of her many helpful tidbits: "Giving and receiving is more complicated than winning and losing.") When Huck is around his father, he loses the glint in his eyes – not dramatically, but just enough to let us know his guard is down. The scenes between Duvall and Bana take their rightful place as the emotional high point of the movie.
Most gambling films, the ambitious ones anyway, go overboard in trying to turn the sport into a metaphor for life. Although it is shot very simply, "Lucky You" mainlines the metaphor stuff to its detriment.
But Hanson does some marvelous work around the edges. He displays the funky, rundown aspects of Vegas rather than the glitz. He peoples the landscape with intriguing oddball supporting players, like an unctuous phone call-in psychologist (Robert Downey Jr.) or a jokester buddy (Saverio Guerra) who, on a bet, has received silicone implants.
Even though the film features high-wire high rollers and culminates in a championship showdown, at its best it's refreshingly offhanded. It's a hit-and-miss movie that's worth seeing for the hits. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for some language and sexual humor.