"Hustle, 10; commitment, 0."
That's how Huck Cheever's friend Suzanne describes the compulsive professional gambler to her younger sister, Billie, who's just moved to Las Vegas with hopes of becoming a lounge singer. But that warning doesn't stop little sis from falling for Huck's smooth talk—or from being swept into the card player's dramatic-but-desperate life.
Huck is a seasoned card shark, a master at observing other gamblers' tells and vulnerabilities. Still, he struggles to master his own weakness: simmering anger that drives him to keep betting even though he knows better. Huck is capable of turning $150 into $10,000 or more on a good night; yet his pockets are inevitably empty a few hours later. In his father's words, when he goes for broke, he ends up broke.
And his father, it turns out, is the source of both Huck's poker skills and his bitterness. L.C. Cheever is a two-time World Series of Poker champion. L.C.'s success at the table, however, came at the expense of his marriage, an offense Huck has no interest in forgiving. Huck despises his arrogant father's ways, yet he exhibits the very same flaws.
Set against the dramatic backdrop of the 2003 World Series of Poker, Lucky You explores the complicated, dysfunctional relationship between father and son—as well as Huck's journey toward taking the right risks in his relationship with Billie instead of the wrong ones at the poker table.
Las Vegas casinos are the context for Lucky You's gambling-focused storyline, but character interaction and development are at the heart of this slow-moving drama. Huck is instantly likeable, yet obviously flawed. He wants a real relationship with Billie, but his compulsion to gamble almost torpedoes it before they begin. After Huck steals some money from Billie, she wisely distances herself from him. She's got enough self-respect to pull out of a relationship with someone who obviously has honesty and commitment issues; she goes so far as to return to California to remove herself from Huck's influence. (He follows her and apologizes sincerely for the ways he's treated her badly.)
Gradually, Billie begins to trust and encourage Huck again. Along the way, she dispenses some perceptive insights about relationships. She quotes Dr. Laura to Huck, telling him that living with anger toward a parent will wreck his life. She notes, "I think everybody is just trying not to be lonely," an observation that definitely applies to his addictive gambling. About his habit, Huck insists he's not a compulsive gambler; but after spending time with him as he places his bets, Billie jokes, "I'm getting an education on what it's like not to be compulsive." She also challenges Huck's father to see life as something more than just a competition, saying, "Maybe giving and receiving are more complicated than winning and losing."
L.C. is the film's other deeply flawed character. Huck says of his dad's poker mentoring of him as a child, "I could never beat him, and he never let me win." Competition—and not the friendly kind—remains fierce. But even though L.C. mercilessly critiques Huck's emotional poker style, it becomes clear that the father still longs for a relationship with a son who's more or less rejected him.
L.C. offers to help Huck financially (the proud son refuses, of course). Father tells son, "You play cards the way you should lead your life; and you lead your life the way you should play cards." In other words, Huck is willing to take big risks, but not in the right areas of life. L.C. also tells his son that he's managed to figure out how to live life apart from poker, and that it doesn't consume him as much as it did when he was younger. An emotional scene finds L.C. asking if Huck can forgive him for his mistakes; and the remainder of the film is as much about whether Huck will be able to do so as it is which man will beat the other in the World Series of Poker.
Gambling is omnipresent in Lucky You. And while the film never comes right out and says, "This is a bad way to spend your life and money," it's clear that the habit has wrought significant damage in Huck and L.C.'s lives and relationship. At one point, Billie compares Huck's gambling addiction to alcoholism. Gambling, then, isn't given a total pass as just another harmless form of entertainment.
Suzanne asks Huck if he believes in karma, saying, "Everyone over 21 gets what they deserve." We glimpse a box of "lucky" decorative horseshoes in a Las Vegas pawnshop. Billie is somewhat superstitious; at a Chinese restaurant, she requests a fortune cookie before the meal so she can ruminate on its message as soon as possible. Huck says he doesn't believe in luck, only in skill. But Billie calls his bluff by making up a fortune directly related to Huck's mostly dire circumstances—and suddenly he's very interested in that fortune.
Huck and Billie share several long kisses. And it's implied that the pair has sex. (We see the two in bed afterward. A sheet covers Billie to her shoulders; Huck's chest is visible.) When he takes her home on his motorcycle, she shows a lot of leg hiking up her skirt to ride.
Crude euphemisms are assigned to sex and sexual anatomy; syphilis is mentioned as well. Waitresses at a casino wear very short skirts, and several female characters show cleavage. One of Huck's friends, Lester, is in the middle of a $50,000 bet that he won't be able get breast implants and keep them for six months. He's already gotten them, and he's determined to keep them. Thus, he appears to have female breasts.
Huck gets tossed roughly into an empty swimming pool by two goons working for a man who loaned Huck money. The fall results in a large bruise around one eye.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters use the s-word clearly three times. Another person swears under his breath (it's either an f- or s-word). Jesus' name is taken in vain once or twice. There's a couple uses of "d--n" and one of "b--ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Huck drinks, as do a multitude of people in the casinos (some of whom also smoke).
Other Negative Elements
Probably at least half of the movie's scenes, if not more, take place in casinos and/or involve gambling. And while the film does illustrate how gambling can be addictive and destructive, many long and dramatically engaging scenes at the poker table also tend to make the game look intriguing and cool.
Both Huck and L.C. are so given to betting that they'll whip out cash and cards in a Vegas diner, betting thousands of dollars over coffee. Huck's compulsion propels him to steal a digital camera from a roommate and $1,200 from Billie's purse after sleeping with her. Not only does Lester get breast implants to try to win a big bet, he also stays in a casino restroom for a month straight (surviving by ordering room service).
Actor Robert Downey Jr. has a brief cameo as a 900-number advice-line operator. A complete shyster, he simultaneously operates several different cell phones dishing phony psychological and relationship counseling to desperate folks on the other end.
I hadn't heard or seen much about Lucky You before watching it. Since Drew Barrymore, who plays Billie, has starred in so many romantic comedies as 57 varieties of the ditzy blond, I assumed this would be more of the same—in Vegas.
It came as a surprise, then, that Billie is the film's moral center—and a understated one at that. There's nary a trace of ditz to be found in Barrymore's portrayal. Billie isn't perfect, evidenced by the fact that she jumps all-too-quickly into bed with the sweet-talking Huck. Other than that mistake, however, her character's honesty and earnestness consistently provide an important foil to Eric Bana's hard-charging performance. It's her influence that paves the way for him to begin working on his relationship with his father, which has been fractured by years of bitterness and competition.
One star of Lucky You that won't get marquee billing is the game of poker. Specifically, Texas Hold'em. In equal measures, the film depicts the popular gambling game's allure and its capacity to ensnare lives. Writer/director/producer Curtis Hanson, himself an aficionado, says he chose to focus on poker because of the symbolic potential for exploring relationships that it offered. "I wanted to do a relationship story set in the world of poker because I've always been fascinated by the fact that the skills one must develop to be a good poker player are almost the exact opposite of the skills needed to be successful in a relationship," he says. "Deceit, or bluffing, which can destroy the trust needed for a successful personal relationship, is a big part of the game. There is also no collaborative spirit; it's an individual sport. Poker players must be completely self-centered; they can't have sympathy and win. They can't worry about whether their opponent can afford a loss. By contrast, warm human relationships are based on caring, empathy, honesty and often putting the other person first. Because of this dichotomy, it seemed poker could be both a metaphor and a mirror for the different relationships in a story."
More often than not, I don't agree with directors' assessments of their own work. But in this case, Hanson's description of the themes involved in his film is right on the money (so to speak). Complex characters and their choices take center stage in Lucky You, even as the stakes—both financial and relational—get higher and higher.
He could have left out the foul language and the visuals of a man sporting breast implants, though.