With the exception of "Rounders," movies about poker rarely get it right. Even in the classic "The Cincinnati Kid," with the immortal showdown between Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson, the final hand is straight out of fantasyland. They're playing five-card stud and McQueen gets a full house - only to learn Robinson has a straight flush.
That happens about once every 100 years. Same thing with the Texas Hold 'Em showdown in the otherwise-stellar "Casino Royale." You could watch every hand in every episode in televised Hold 'Em shows ever filmed, from "Poker After Dark" to "High Stakes Poker" to "Celebrity Porn Poker" (I'm not kidding), and you'd never see anything like the final four-player hand (nut flush, full house, higher full house, straight flush). It was WAY over the top.
"Lucky You" gets it right. The main romance is a tad corny, and the poker metaphors are hokey, but this movie knows its Hold 'Em. Just about every hand - and there's a lot of poker in this movie - is played in plausible fashion.
Most of the table talk is spot-on as well. Despite the credentials of the major players involved - the film was directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "8 Mile"), co-written by Eric Roth ("Munich," "Forrest Gump") and stars Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall - "Lucky You" has been sitting on the shelf for two years. They almost missed the poker craze altogether. You'd think a film sidelined for so long would be a mess, but this is a well-crafted and insightful look at the mind-set of the hard-core gambler, who is more addicted to the action than the money. Bana's a good actor, but he's a little too perfectly coiffed and a bit stiff here as Huck Cheever, a talented but reckless poker player/lone wolf who regularly goes broke. Huck (who is not based on real-life poker pro Huck Seed) is the kind of player who will go all-in even when he knows he's about a 3-to-1 underdog.
Duvall, who has been playing crusty old charmers since he was about 40, is perfectly tailored to the part of Huck's semi-estranged dad, L.C. Cheever, a two-time World Series of Poker champion who is revered as a legend by everyone except Huck, who still resents the old man for running out on him and Mom back in the day. With his cowboy walk, quick wit, questionable hair and crinkly smile, Duvall's Cheever looks and sounds like one of those guys who spend so much time in casinos they can't tell you what day it is. He's gold in this role.
Fresh off her turns as the sunny love interest in "Music & Lyrics" (not to mention "Fever Pitch," "Never Been Kissed," "The Wedding Singer," etc., etc.), Drew Barrymore is the curiously named Billie Offer, a sweet gal who is new in town and instantly falls for Huck despite the warnings of her sister (Debra Messing in a tiny role). Billie is charmed by Huck's gambling adventures (in one hilarious sequence, he tries to run three miles AND shoot 78 or better in 18 holes in less than three hours for $10,000), but not so charmed when he "borrows" money from her purse to feed his habit.
Although Huck goes broke more than once and gets roughed up by a couple of thugs working for his bankroller after he blows the $10,000 entrance fee to the World Series of Poker, "Lucky You" isn't a particularly dark examination of the gambling universe. Even the addicts who make insane wagers, e.g., a guy who literally gets breast implants to win a huge bet, are seen more as colorful characters than sad cases. Bana's Huck is like the Kevin Costner character in the similarly toned "Tin Cup" - a guy with all the talent in the world who needs to learn how to stop being his own worst enemy.
Using the actual furniture and artwork from the Bellagio's old poker room in Las Vegas, Hanson sets "Lucky You" in 2003. Real-life pros such as Sammy Farha, Doyle Brunson and Barry Greenstein make cameos; Jennifer Harman has a small role.
As gambling movies go, "Lucky You" isn't as gritty as "The Gambler" (with James Caan in a great performance) or as darkly funny as Robert Altman's "California Split," but it's a solid piece of mainstream storytelling that works as a character study and a love story, even if you don't know a gut-shot straight draw from a nut flush.