Monday, April 30, 2007

The New York Times
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April 29, 2007

Love and Loneliness on the Las Vegas Strip


CERTAIN films are unimaginable anywhere but in the cities where they’re set. “Sweet Smell of Success” in New York, for instance, or “Breathless” in Paris. “Chinatown” in noirish Los Angeles, “The Untouchables” in two-fisted Chicago. Similarly, if one wants to make a movie about bluffing, artifice and high-grade insincerity, there’s only one logical place to go.

Las Vegas is not just the backdrop but the neon-lighted moral reflector of the director Curtis Hanson’s latest, “Lucky You,” a romance involving a man (Eric Bana) and his woman (Drew Barrymore), though it’s really about the man and his card game (poker). Written by Mr. Hanson and the Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), it’s also about the cost of playing emotions close to the vest, and the issues of illusion and perception — themes that tie together many of Mr. Hanson’s films, including “L.A. Confidential,” “Wonder Boys,” “8 Mile” and “In Her Shoes.”

“The location itself speaks to that,” said Carol Fenelon, Mr. Hanson’s friend for 20 years, his producer and his partner in the production company Deuce Three. “The whole idea of the Vegas strip — every hotel is created to mimic something that exists in its original form somewhere else, and is always a very bad facsimile of it,” Ms. Fenelon added, alluding to ersatz monuments like the Paris hotel’s Eiffel Tower and the Luxor’s pyramid. “Las Vegas is like that on so many levels: people come there as doctors or lawyers, and become gamblers. They exist in a way that has nothing to do with what they are inside. It’s all about playing the game.”

And Mr. Hanson, who was born in gambling’s second city, Reno, Nev., couldn’t ignore the similarities to the movie world, where survival depends on creating, and maintaining, an alternate reality.

“Part of the reason for wanting to make the movie was that the poker world was different, interesting, and we had an affinity for it,” said Mr. Hanson, who still plays regularly in casual contests with money at stake, while Ms. Fenelon competes in tournaments. “But the other part of it was the emotional thing. The skills at the table — and in the movie business — are different from the qualities that you want running your personal life. That single-mindedness, the aggression, the duplicity or bluffing or whatever you want to call it, the lack of sympathy — as Billy says,” a reference to Ms. Barrymore’s character, “you can’t be concerned with whether your opponent can afford to lose or not. That was the real attraction, to deal with that, and explore people whose business means being in that situation all the time. How does that impact their private life?”

Or, for that matter, their professional life? Although filmmaking is often described as a collaborative medium — especially when it’s successful — the director can be like a player with two aces in the hole and a dwindling pile of chips. For at least 10 years, Mr. Hanson has been among Hollywood’s more critically respected directors, but box-office success has for the most part eluded him. “L.A. Confidential” was his splashiest success, with Oscars for the supporting actress Kim Basinger and the Hanson-Brian Helgeland screenplay, as well as nominations in seven other categories.

He also generates respect among the people with whom he’s worked. “Curtis has this great ability to see what makes you tick and find the appropriate things to say,” said Guy Pearce, one of the stars of “L.A. Confidential.” “I don’t mean in a politically correct way, but as in terms of inspiring you and getting you to do what he wants. To me, that’s the job description of what directing is all about.”

Yet Mr. Hanson’s post-“L.A. Confidential” work has seemed snakebit. The much-lauded “Wonder Boys” never seemed to be given a proper release; the Eminem vehicle “8 Mile” was pigeonholed as a rap movie; and “In Her Shoes” was marketed merely as a Cameron Diaz chick flick. And the odds for “Lucky You” don’t look particularly favorable. Its release has been delayed by Warner Brothers, which has decided that its ideal opening berth is opposite “Spider-Man 3” this Friday.

Add to this the fact that the trailers for the movie are emphasizing the romance between the Bana and Barrymore characters, rather than the angle that would seem to be a surefire marketing hook: poker. Ever since Chris Moneymaker, a virtual unknown, emerged from the world of Internet gambling to win the World Series of Poker in 2003— thus creating the so-called Moneymaker effect, which convinced many untutored amateurs that even they could beat the pros — the game has exploded. Televised poker has become the No. 3 spectator sport behind pro football and Nascar racing, according to Variety, and the World Poker Tour presents it on the Travel Channel, which has committed to broadcasting three more years of tournaments. Last year, the World Series of Poker involved 8,773 players and awarded $12 million to the first-place finisher.

The Moneymaker year, 2003 — the same in which “Lucky You” is set — was only the second in which the “hole card” camera was in use (showing the player’s hidden cards for use in delayed broadcasts), a change that inevitably altered the pro game’s psychology. Harrah’s bought the World Series trademark the following year and moved the event from its longtime home, Binion’s Horseshoe, to Harrah’s own casino Rio (“an ugly monstrosity right off the Strip,” Ms. Fenelon said). Predictably, perhaps, the rise in poker’s popularity has meant a gradual separation from its roots.

Mr. Hanson’s reaction has been to graft his story to a sense of poker history and its vanishing sense of earthy romance. Using actual poker aces among the cast — more than two dozen make cameo appearances, including Huck Seed, the namesake of Mr. Bana’s Huck Cheever — Mr. Hanson based the poker hands on ones drawn from games that he and Ms. Fenelon had observed, or that their chief poker consultant, the world-class player Doyle Brunson, had lived through himself.

In one sequence early in the film, Huck beats an opponent with a pair of deuces. Mr. Brunson had once been on the receiving end of that, in a game against the poker master Chip Reese.

“It was a young man’s move,” Mr. Hanson said. “Chip has said that on that hand, he wasn’t playing the cards, he was playing the man. He had played Doyle many, many times, and Doyle made a move of pushing all in at a critical moment of the hand. And Chip read him correctly as having nothing.

“It wasn’t about the cards. It was about the person.”

Historically, Mr. Hanson said, gambling movies have tended to dwell on cheating or the “unbelievably great hand” that comes out of nowhere, like four of a kind or a royal flush. “Not that people haven’t cheated, obviously, but that’s really not part of the game.”

When the character played by Jean Smart gets a straight flush during the World Series, the commentator notes that there has been only one of those at the final table of the event. It’s a scene that illustrates the vortex of probability and serendipity in which the professional poker player finds himself — as does the professional filmmaker, who knows a little more, but never enough, about what determines success. Both are, in a sense, lone guns. It doesn’t seem accidental that the phrase “luck of the draw” can apply equally to cardplaying or gunslinging, or that the denouement of “Lucky You” — a showdown between Mr. Bana’s character and his nemesis, L. C., played by Robert Duvall — recalls not just the 52-card catharsis of “The Cincinnati Kid” but also the showdowns that climax many great westerns.

And, as in many westerns, the story line is propelled by the concept of loneliness — “poker playing,” said Mr. Roth, the screenwriter, “being a defense against loneliness, moreover a fight against the inexorability of time.”

In “Lucky You” the vanishing frontier of a John Ford movie is mirrored by the disappearing authenticity of big-time poker.

“I’m always intrigued by the way things that are real in our culture are replaced by things which simulate authenticity,” Mr. Hanson said. “At the same time, there’s also this yearning for reality. That’s why Duvall says at the end of the movie, after L. C. has been hired to make an appearance as a celebrity poker player, ‘They want to pretend it’s the way it used to be.’ That the game is what it used to be. But it’s exploded far beyond that.”