Monday, November 28, 2011

Vegas Movies: Lucky You

Lucky You could have been one of the great Las Vegas movies, but for reasons that remain unclear, it's craps out.

Director Curtis Hanson is one of those rare filmmakers who really makes the city his films are set in a main character. In his best work, like 8 Mile, Wonder Boys, and the neo-noir masterpiece LA Confidential, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and 1950s Los Angeles come to vivid life. A Curtis Hanson film set in Las Vegas had endless potential, but Lucky You, the story of an irresponsible gambler who makes his living at the poker table dealing with daddy issues, fizzled both critically and commercially.

Since this is a Vegas-themed blog (and not a source for incisive film criticism), I won't bore you with a long review. The movie was a box office disaster, mostly because the studio released it with little to no fanfare. They must have known they had a stinker on their hands, as the chemistry between Eric Bana (who is for some reason always cast as a humorless brooder even though he was a comedian in Australia and he practically explodes off the screen with manic and angry charisma in Chopper, the movie that  brought him to Hollywood's attention) and naive cocktail waitress Drew Barrymore is non-existent, the story has been told 10,000 times before, and screen legend Robert Duval (playing Bana's gruff poker-legend father) seems to be completely checked out. More than anything, the movie just feels completely lifeless, as Hanson fails to capture the crazy kinetic flashy energy of modern day Sin City.

That failure, to me, is the greatest disappointment of the film. It would be hard for me to get excited about a poker movie under most circumstances, but Curtis Hanson telling the story of an up and down on his luck Vegas-based poker player sounded rich with potential. While Hanson is semi-successful at depicting life away from The Strip for Bana, who lives in a small unfurnished home he rarely visits, he does very little to make Las Vegas come alive in ways comparable to how he treated other great cities he's depicted in his films. Hanson clearly wanted to capture Vegas in an lived-in and accurate manner, shooting on location for every scene (save for the scenes in The Bellagio Poker Room, which are shot in a meticulously detailed recreation on a sound-stage designed to reflect what it look like before its mid-Aughts redesign, because for some reason the movie is a period piece that takes place in the ancient times of 2003, even though the film was released in 2007 after spending a year on the shelf).

In one memorable scene, Bana tries to borrow money from Robert Downey Jr. (bringing a welcome jolt of energy in a pre-Iron Man cameo that reminds you that he used to be an interesting character actor not so long ago) as a smooth-talking 1-900 number operator working multiple phone lines and conning callers out of their money by the minute as he plays the part of lawyer, board-certified psychologist, and contract-specialist, all from an empty casino bar. The brief scene is a glimpse at the unique Vegas movie that might have been, as is the sequence when Bana's Huck (I know, I know, that name, but in co-screenwriters Hanson and Eric Roth's defense, they named him after a real famous poker player) starts with a tiny bit of cash and spends the evening slowly "chipping up" until he's got thousands of dollars in winnings from unsuspecting gamblers in his pocket before losing it all in a risky bet (which illustrates his character flaw of playing poker too recklessly and living his life with his cards too close to his chest, or something out of screenwriting 101) is another glimmer of what could have been.

But too much of the movie feels one step removed from the heartbeat of the city, as Bana romances Barrymore on top of a parking lot or in empty casinos during times that they would be bustling with activity, even during the post recession downturn of the city. I don't know if it's a function of the fact that shooting in a city that's open and crowded 24/7 is nearly impossible, but Hanson's Vegas is devoid of people, color and energy, which is just wrong for a city that glows and flashes in blinding neon (with one light so bright it can be seen from friggin' space). Hanson also fails to explore some of the stranger and lesser known corners of Vegas, while the main characters are charmless, boring, and completely standard, as the Oscar nominated director misses a great opportunity to capture one of the most photographed cities in the world in new and exciting ways or to reveal the intricate quirks of the people who actually live there.

Perhaps it's a function of Hanson exploring a sadder, seedier, and less flashy side of the town than the vision that those "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" ads attempt to depict, but there's a dismal lack of energy to Lucky You that drains the city of life and color. It's a strange letdown for a filmmaker who captured the shimmering and seductive glow of 1950's Hollywood so perfectly in LA Confidential. Curtis Hanson is one of the most undervalued filmmakers working in Hollywood, and setting is usually as important to his films as anything else. The authentic sense of place he's captured in most of his films is comparable to the work of a master of the metropolitan such as Woody Allen, but for some curious reason, Curtis Hanson just wasn't able to capture the unique and bizarre buzz of Sin City.

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