You could say that most Curtis Hanson movies are gambles.
When he made “L.A. Confidential,” he bet that a couple of Australian actors could pass as early-1950s California cops. “8 Mile” depended on Eminem’s untested big-screen charisma, while “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” gambled on outing Rebecca DeMornay’s malevolent side. Hanson’s box-office flops, including “Wonder Boys,” tend to take the biggest chances.
Hanson’s latest picture, “Lucky You,” throws caution to the winds and bets on the idea that multiplex audiences will be as fascinated with poker as he clearly is. To draw non-fans into the movie, he’s used a number of entertaining distractions, including a love story, a father-son duel and cameo appearances by famous actors and poker pros such as Huck Seed and Jason Lester.
Yet this is still a movie about pushing cards around a table. Robert Downey Jr. may show up for one tantalizing scene in which his out-of-left-field character plays with cell phones while trying to hold on to his marriage, and Jean Smart may hold the camera (briefly) as a poker face who quietly acknowledges that she has met her match, but they’re really just there to provide a little variety.
My guess is that Smart shot another scene or two that ended up on the cutting-room floor, while Downey (who worked with Hanson on “Wonder Boys”) wandered onto the set and was recruited to improvise his episode. But who knows why Charles Martin Smith is here, or what Debra Messing is doing with a throwaway role that does not require such a high-profile actress.
Running just over two hours, “Lucky You” feels like the kind of indulgence that will mostly appeal to converts to the game. At the preview screening I attended, several people walked out during a particularly concentrated poker match. But more people stayed to see how it — and half a dozen other contests — turned out.
The rather thin script by Hanson and Eric Roth (who wrote “Forrest Gump”) focuses on a veteran Las Vegas player, Huck Cheever (Eric Bana); his singer girlfriend, Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore); and Huck’s father, L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall), a very tough old bird who competes with his son on several occasions.
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Although it’s doubtful that these characters could have held our attention by themselves, the casting is so astute that it makes up for quite a bit of psychobabble dialogue (some of which is apparently supposed to be funny).
Bana has an intense appeal that almost justifies his inane talk of finding “something special” with Billie. Barrymore does her best to make Billie’s moral objections to Huck believable, while Duvall does a charming variation on his “Great Santini” role as an exacting and sometimes cruel father.
Warner Bros. has kept “Lucky You” on the shelf for awhile, and no wonder. It’s a specialized piece intended for a very specific audience. Still, studio executives must have known what they were getting into when they approved the script. Hanson and Roth can hardly be blamed for achieving much of what they must have intended.