Maybe if it had been made in the 1940’s or 50’s in black and white, maybe if it starred Frank Sinatra and Lee Remick, maybe if we had never seen better films like “The Hustler,” maybe this script might have worked. But today it just seems formulaic and out of date. As a poker hand, it’s not even a pair of deuces.
Huck (Eric Bana) is a poker player. He has a lot of natural skill and a lot of experience. His weakness is that at the big moment he does not go by the book. Sometimes that means a good decision based on intuition. Other times it means a bad decision based on anger. He understands the concept of "left pocket money," your "real" money that can't be bet. But when the moment comes, he bets not only his left pocket money but everyone else's too.
Huck lives in Las Vegas, where the world series of poker is about to start. He needs to qualify for a seat and he needs to have the $10,000 entry fee. The first part of the movie is about whether he will make it — not much suspense there, as we wouldn’t have a movie if he did. Then we have the tournament itself. In most movies in this genre, our young hero must take on a father-figure, an Oedipal metaphor, the champion, the establishment guy, the man our hero both looks up to and longs to triumph over. It is emblematic of this movie’s absence of subtlety or complexity that in this case the father-figure is in fact Huck’s literal father, English professor-turned professional gambler Robert Duvall, who insists on calling his son “Huckleberry.” (The English professor background suggests the name is inspired by Finn, not Hound.)
And there must be The Girl, in this case Billie, played by Drew Barrymore, still the effervescent flower child, even as a brunette, but who cannot and should not sing. It was okay in “Music and Lyrics,” where she was not supposed to be a good singer. Here, it is a performance that cries out for Simon Cowell. She and Bana have no chemistry, a real problem when their supposed overwhelming attraction and powerful connection is expected to not just capture our attention but justify most of the decisions and developments throughout the movie.
The movie’s one great strength is a brief appearance by Robert Downey, Jr. as a friend of Huck’s who answers a variety of 900-number calls while he sits at a bar and refuses to loan Huck money. As he juggles the calls on his cell phones, the conversations a witty counterpoint to his dialogue with Huck, the movie briefly comes alive. But all too quickly, his scene is over and we’re stuck watching people play cards. You gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em — in this movie, the wise viewer will toss in his cards as soon as Downey’s scene is over.
Parents should know that this movie has some strong language and some sexual references and a non-explicit situation. Characters smoke and drink. The movie includes a lot of bad behavior including lying and stealing and a discussion of cheating, plus excessive and possibly compulsive gambling and some peril and violence.
Families who see this movie should talk about the significance of the ring. What did Huck decide was most important?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy The Hustler and the sequel, The Color of Money. Rounders has Matt Damon and Edward Norton as poker players. Families will also enjoy a true story about the world series of poker, Positively Fifth Street.