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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Lucky You had a difficult journey to theaters. This drama, set in and around the World Series of Poker, had its release date delayed so many times that the poker phenomenon had cooled off considerably by the time it actually hit screens. After nearly two years, it finally opened the first weekend of May 2007 – the exact same weekend as Spider-Man 3. Needless to say, audiences ignored it, and critics weren’t too kind either. Personally, I think this is one of those misunderstood films that never got a fair shake. DVD often corrects such oversights, and my hope is that Lucky You will finally find the appreciative audience it deserves.

Eric Bana (Hulk, Munich) plays Huck Cheever, a professional poker player known as a “blaster” for the way he plays full out every time he sits down at the table. This tendency to forego caution often leaves him broke, which is how we find him at the beginning of the story. While trying to raise enough money to participate in the World Series of Poker, he meets an aspiring lounge singer named Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), falls in love with her, and uncontrollably uses her, all under the watchful eye of his father LC (Robert Duvall), a two-time winner of the World Series. Huck and LC have had a strained relationship for years, and their rivalry is intense.

There’s a great line of dialogue in which LC tells his son: “You live your life the way you ought to play poker, and you play poker the way you ought to live your life.” In other words, Huck is quick to take chances when he has cards in his hand, while he remains much more conservative and withdrawn in his relationships. This essentially causes him to lose in both areas. Lucky You does a lot to dramatize this, not the least of which is the way Huck learns that he’ll forfeit the love of his life by gambling with her emotions. In another scene, Billie calls him on this, pointing out that he is all too quick to take advantage of those around him for his own benefit.

I really like the way this movie portrays the unique desperation that accompanies the desire to make a living by gambling. Huck has to beg, borrow, and steal for money when he’s down. When a rich investor offers to bankroll him, he abuses the privilege and puts himself further in the hole. The screenplay (by Eric Roth and director Curtis Hanson) also depicts the practice of stunt betting: an exercise in which gamblers take on outrageous bets in an effort to pick up quick cash. In one of the film’s best scenes, Huck agrees to run several miles, then play a full round of golf in three hours, without going over a certain number of strokes. Sounds silly, but this kind of thing really does go on.

I’ve been an admirer of Curtis Hanson’s for a long time. The filmmaker is gifted at delving into a world and making all its intricacies come alive on screen. Whether it’s 1940’s Hollywood in L.A. Confidential, the Detroit underground rap scene in 8 Mile, or the world of high stakes poker, Hanson’s movies always feel authentic. That kind of thing is appealing to me, and Lucky You is a great example of how a movie can immerse you in the details of its setting.

This is, perhaps, what turned some folks off. There’s a lot of poker information here. A lot. If you are extremely knowledgeable about the game, you will be rewarded with extra insight into how Huck plays his hands at the table. On the other hand, if you know little or nothing about poker, you may find yourself drowning in minutia. I fall into the category of knowing almost nothing about it. Sometimes the characters were betting and strategizing and I didn’t understand exactly what they were doing. That said, I did learn a few things about the game (which was cool). I also think that it’s okay to just focus on the big picture. Most of us don’t understand all the technical jargon on a show like “ER” either, but we can tell when a situation is life or death. Even when I didn’t fully grasp the concepts of the game, I understood the general scheme of things. My wife, on the other hand, commented that if she’d had a greater knowledge of poker, she’d have found the movie more interesting. I think Lucky You’s greatest strength – it’s authenticity – will be its greatest weakness for some people.

Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore are both very good in their roles, and do I even need to say that Robert Duvall is excellent? The interplay between he and Bana is gripping. It’s also worth mentioning that Lucky You finds a different take on the “Big Game” that ends the film, thereby avoiding the usual clichés. When it’s all said and done, Huck Cheever has won some things and lost others, but more importantly, he has refined his technique in ways that will change his luck forever. I hope other people enjoy following his journey as much as I did.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

Lucky You is available on DVD in a widescreen format preserving its 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Regrettably, Curtis Hanson is one of the few directors who doesn’t believe in DVD audio commentaries, but at least he is represented in two of the disc’s special features. “The Players at the Table” allows the filmmaker to discuss his decision to cast real poker players (many quite famous in that world) in small parts or as extras so as to submerse his cast in authenticity. This featurette introduces us to some of the giants of poker and explains how they helped make sure the film was realistic in its portrayal of different hands and betting strategies.

The other feature is “The Real Deal – The Time and Place of Lucky You,” which focuses on the 2003 World Series of Poker. According to Hanson, 2003 was the year poker really changed, partially because it was the first year in which the “Card-Cam” was used (thereby making televised poker more interesting to watch), partially because of the rise of online poker, and partially because a guy with no professional experience came out of nowhere to win. Having enjoyed the movie, I found it enlightening to learn more about the real event.

Finally, there are about nine minutes of deleted scenes including an additional Drew Barrymore song as well as a cool sequence showing Billie’s sister (Debra Messing) at work – dressed as a mermaid and performing in a water tank.

The 5.1 digital sound mix is superb. In all the casino scenes, you hear slot machines jangling in the background, just as if you were really there.

Lucky You is rated PG-13 for some language and sexual humor. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.

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