Lucky You

“Lucky You” is one of those hollow, false-sounding movies that’s full of pithy observations that are meant to sound wise, all centered around a particular theme. In this case, it’s poker, so everyone uses poker language to express deeper thoughts about Life in General. You have to know when it’s time to fold, and sometimes you have trust your gut and go all-in, and everyone has a “tell” that gives away what they’re thinking, and so on.

Curiously, before “Lucky You” began, I saw a trailer for a film called “No Reservations,” which looks to be the same type of movie. “No Reservations” is about a chef whose personal life is in disarray, so the movie’s tagline is “Sometimes life isn’t made to order.” Then the chef says, “I wish there was a cookbook for life,” and her friend says, “It’s the recipes you create yourself that are the best.”

GET IT?! Cooking is a metaphor for LIFE!

But no fair ripping on a movie that hasn’t come out yet. For all I know, “No Reservations” is a great film that just has a lousy trailer. Back to “Lucky You,” which is a lousy film that has a lousy trailer. It is the work of Curtis Hanson, the director who dazzled us with “L.A. Confidential,” successfully adapted a tricky novel with “Wonder Boys,” proved that Eminem can act with “8 Mile,” and made chick-lit come alive with “In Her Shoes.” His previous efforts have been good, often against the odds, but he does not fare as well with “Lucky You.” Here he has taken a fairly boring thing — watching other people play cards — and has made it, well, boring. And not just boring, but trite, with stock characters and generic dialogue.

The film stars erstwhile Hulk Eric Bana as Huck Cheever, a Las Vegas man who makes a living (more or less) by playing poker at the casinos. He’s on a first-name basis with the dealers and waitresses, and is known to the other players as a bold, expert gambler. He uses his poker powers in regular life, too, discerning people’s thoughts through their body language and talking people into things they don’t want to do.

His stubbornness and his obsession with gambling combine to make him broke most of the time. He’s not above a little theft here and there, or cheating if it’s possible. His father, L.C. (Robert Duvall), a world-champion poker player himself, taught him everything he knows. The two haven’t gotten along in years, owing to L.C.’s mistreatment of Huck’s mother, but there’s a grudging admiration between them for one another’s strengths when it comes to playing cards.

Huck meets a new girl in town, Billie (Drew Barrymore), whose sister Suzanne (Debra Messing) Huck already knows. “I had Huck’s number early on,” Suzanne warns her little sis. “What number is that?” she asks. “Hustle 10, commitment zero,” is the reply. That’s actually some of the better dialogue.

The story’s main thrust is that Huck wants to get a seat in the World Series of Poker (the film is set in 2003, back when poker-as-a-“sport” was just taking off) and needs $10,000 to do it. He cannot seem to resist gambling away every windfall he acquires, though, yet he doesn’t think he has a gambling problem.

And yet the film is not about his crippling gambling addiction. It’s more about his relationship with his father, although that doesn’t seem to be the central focus, either. (The focus is definitely not his romance with Billie, since she disappears for about half the film.) And that’s the strange thing. Despite being full of platitudes and aphorisms and neat, tidy dialogue that sounds like it’s summing up the themes, it’s STILL not clear what the movie’s point is. There’s a general sense, when it’s all over, that Huck has somehow changed or had an epiphany or learned something about himself — but darned if I know what it is.

And oy vey, the dialogue. It’s written by Hanson himself and Eric Roth (“Munich,” “Forrest Gump”), and it might be worth noting that this is the first time Hanson has directed his own screenplay since “L.A. Confidential.” Here’s a corker, uttered by Billie completely out of nowhere as she and Huck stand on a balcony looking at the people below: “You know what I think? I think everybody’s just trying not to be lonely.” That would be cheesy enough if it were part of a conversation, but it’s not. They’re just standing there, and Billie says it, apropos of nothing. What the…?

Billie has a little quirk where sometimes she gets expressions wrong, like calling someone a “sick pony” instead of a “sick puppy.” So when she and Huck are arguing over her failure to help him cheat in a stupid bet with one of his goofy gambler friends, and he says anyone would have done it, she exclaims, “You always have the hard answers!” And he corrects her, “Easy answers,” and she fires back, “No! The hard ones!” Then she runs off, leaving Huck and the audience to ponder the deep wisdom in what she has said. Ah, yes, the hard answers. Mmm, indeed. Oh, wait: THAT DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING.

Another example. Huck and L.C. keep winning Huck’s mother’s wedding ring back and forth from each other in an ongoing battle to see who can be the bigger reprobate: the father, who would gamble his ex-wife’s wedding ring, or the son, who would then sell that ring to a pawn shop. Near the end of the film, in a heated exchange between the two, L.C. says his ex-wife eventually forgave him for leaving her, and gave him the ring as a token. It means a lot to him, he says. Huck asks why, then, does he keep gambling it away? L.C. says: “Because she’s your mother.” And again, that’s supposed to mean something significant and thought-provoking, even though it DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE.

And that’s the film. Lots of deep-sounding pronouncements, lots of contrived emotional exchanges, and scene after scene of people playing poker. Hanson even trots out the old trope where the ditzy dame sits with her fella at the poker table and doesn’t realize she’s not supposed to let the other players know, through her squeals and chatter, what his cards are. Is there any person on earth who doesn’t understand that card games involve secrecy? Isn’t that gag as old as film itself? To employ another one of the poker metaphors Hanson is so fond of, “Lucky You” acts like it’s holding a straight flush when all it really has is maybe a pair of threes.

C- (2 hrs., 4 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, some very mild sexuality; should have been PG.)