(director/writer: Curtis Hanson; screenwriter: Eric Roth/based on a story by Mr. Roth; cinematographer: Peter Deming; editors: Craig Kitson/William Kerr; music: Christopher Young; cast: Eric Bana (Huck Cheever), Drew Barrymore (Billie Offer), Robert Duvall (L. C. Cheever), Debra Messing (Suzanne Offer), Horatio Sanz (Ready Eddie), Charles Martin Smith (Roy Durucher), Saverio Guerra (Lester), Jean Smart (Michelle Carson), Phyllis Somerville (Pawnbroker), Robert Downey Jr. (Telephone Jack); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Denise Di Novi/Mr. Hanson/Carol Fenelon; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2007)
“Duvall does wonders with his underwritten supporting part, bringing wit to the gaming table as artfully as a card shark who cannot be spotted dealing off the bottom of the deck.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Curtis Hanson (“Wonder Boys”/”8 Mile”/”L.A. Confidential”) directs and cowrites with Eric Roth an atmospheric Las Vegas tale about a brash young compulsive professional poker player, Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), learning a life lesson in moral redemption. The viewer’s lesson comes by way of an earful of inside-poker lingo (such as the river, the pocket, the flop, the burn, left pocket money and two bullets in the hole).
Huck, to raise cash for a stake in some poker action at the casino, hocks a digital camera at a Las Vegas pawn shop and goes through an amusing barter with the old lady proprietor to get more money than first offered. He aims to enter the World Series of Poker tournament, where he needs a $10,000 stake to compete against 800 of the best players and his estranged father L. C. Cheever (Robert Duvall), the former English professor who gave the kid the literary handle and knowledge in the game. Dad sports a thin mustache, wears a toupe, has a twinkle in his eye, a foxy woman companion by his side and is the respected two-time poker champion.
The kid plays poker with the small-fries, and wins and loses his stake in multiple games. Known as a blaster (risk-taker), he can’t control his emotions and takes on challenges he shouldn’t. Nevertheless, he’s a masterful player who belongs playing with the big boys.
The leisurely paced film is short on plot, but long on watching its characters make the casino poker scene. If you like watching others play cards, which might please those who watch championship poker on the four-letter cable station, then all the film’s dull spots might be smoothed over. Since the poker plot wasn’t enough of a gamble, it gets sidetracked with a romance between our hero and an aspiring young singer newcomer from Bakersfield, Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), a bland soul who sticks out in that crowd of lost souls because she’s so saintly. Billie, though warned by her older sister (Debra Messing), nevertheless falls for the charming hunk and learns the hard way that when it comes to high-stakes poker her motorcycle riding boyfriend can’t control his bad impulses and is too self-absorbed to think of her. She seems to be around as his conscience and because she doesn’t know squat about poker. Huck, thereby, gets to explain game strategy to her, which he’s really doing for the audience’s benefit. Why these two pleasant characters become a couple is believable, but the on-again/off-again relationship never has much gravitas and wears thin.
It all leads to the big final game (like most other formulaic sports films), where our boy is in the final cut of the televised tournament and so is his dad. Huck has never beaten his dad when it counted, and the filmmaker keeps the suspense going of who will win the tournament, if Huck will get back with Billie, if father and son will reconcile their love/hate relationship and if the compulsive gambler will learn to deal with his blind spots in cards and in life. The filmmaker bluffs us out on one hand, but on the other three hands he plays it by the book and deals it straight.
It’s much like Paul Newman’s “The Hustler,” just not of the same overall high quality. Nevertheless I enjoyed it for the acting and the convincing re-creation of the cheesy Las Vegas scene (shot mostly on the Hollywood studio soundstage). Bana held my attention as he makes his moves on-and-off the card table, showing a flair for comedy, and Duvall does wonders with his underwritten supporting part, bringing wit to the gaming table as artfully as a card shark who cannot be spotted dealing off the bottom of the deck.
If you stick this one out to the end, the reward is hearing over the end credits Bob Dylan sing a number specially commissioned for the film. In the theater I saw the film, the theater emptied before the song was finished. This magnifies the film’s failures in pacing and editing, and are what keep it from winning the big pot.
REVIEWED ON 5/6/2007 GRADE: B-