Lucky us: Curtis Hanson and veteran screenwriter Eric Roth's (FORREST GUMP, MUNICH) cleverly constructed script ensures that gambling newbies don't have to know a thing about Texas hold-'em or seven-card stud to enjoy this romantic drama, a well-acted character piece set in the high-stakes world of Vegas poker.
Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) is the variety of Vegas cardsharp known as a "blaster": He plays hard and bets big. Huck also loses big, but has the skill (and it all comes down to skill; luck and poker have little to do with each other) to quickly turn the paltry $300 he gets from pawning his late mother's wedding ring and his roommate's digital camera into a couple hundred thousand dollars. But he loses it all again nearly as fast. Huck knows the secret to the game lies in knowing how to watch and understand what he's seeing, not just the cards but his opponents, and he's become an expert at reading other people. After all, Huck learned from the best: His father is L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall), a two-time World Series of Poker champ who taught Huck how to play the game, but neglected the facts of life away from the table. Huck hasn't forgiven his father for putting poker ahead of his family — Huck's late mother left after L.C. pawned her wedding ring one time too many — and, in a sense, Huck's own career has been one long competition with his dad. Huck hopes to face off against L.C. in the upcoming World Series, assuming he can hold onto the mandatory $10,000 stake long enough to enter the tournament. But as well as Huck reads other peoples' "tells," he doesn’t quite know what to make of Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore, in a welcome shift to a slightly more adult role), a confusingly sincere and disarmingly honest girl from Bakersfield who hopes to make it in Vegas as a singer. Billie, however, has Huck's number: She knows a compulsive gambler who can't commit to anything beyond the next high-stakes game when she sees one.
Set in 2003, the year the game of poker was poised to become a massively popular spectator sport thanks to the tiny "card cams" that suddenly allowed an audience to see each player's exact hand, the film also captures always-evolving Las Vegas at yet another crossroads. While Hanson tracks down remnants of old Vegas — the El Cortez Hotel, Dino's ("The Last Neighborhood Bar in Las Vegas") and the old White Cross Pharmacy — it's clear that the city has been transformed into a destination spot for families and high-rolling newcomers who, inspired by the surprise success of amateur online player Chris Moneymaker, are now daring to venture beyond the Internet and step into an actual casino. Hanson and Roth's script works the poker-as-metaphor-for-life angle a little too hard, and the script is full of instantly quotable lines that sound more like sound bites than dialogue. But it successfully clears the major hurdle faced by any movie dependant on the rules of a game not everyone plays. There's always a commentator on hand to explain exactly what's going on, and Barrymore's Billie is enough of a neophyte to require a quick rundown of exactly what's happening once the well-staged games get underway. leave a comment --Ken Fox