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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 09:35 am

Full house

Few films do a good job depicting the world of professional gambling

Untitled Document Perhaps it’s a personal thing, having a grandfather who was a professional gambler during the Depression, but few occupations are as cinematically fascinating. Apparently I’m alone on this, with Lucky You folding at the box office despite its relatively realistic portrait of the game of poker and its     players. Eric Bana is a charming snake who plays the people in his life in the same way that he approaches the game. He manipulates his girlfriend (Drew Barrymore) at will and even raids her purse for gambling money while she sleeps. Lucky You isn’t quite original enough to avoid the formulaic adversarial relationship with a champion player, expertly personified by a taunting Robert Duvall as his father, but it does sidestep the cliché ending. If all this reminds you of The Cincinnati Kid (1965), you aren’t far off the mark, and Lucky You does not suffer in comparison. In fact, the fantasized world of high-stakes poker in the Steve McQueen movie is brought down to earth in the new film. The reputation of The Cincinnati Kid rests more on the charismatic presence of McQueen as the young hotshot ready to take on the undisputed champ (Edward G. Robinson) than on its melodramatic story. It looks good until its full hand is shown. Rounders (1998), making three of a kind, transfers the formula to the underworld of illegal gambling in New York. Matt Damon takes on a Russian mobster (John Malkovich) to win enough money to help a friend (Edward Norton) who is in debt to the mob. Malkovich’s flamboyant characterization is the only standout element in this forgettable movie. The formula was nowhere in sight with a pair of films released in 1974. The Gambler, an excessively somber film, features James Caan as a gambler bent on self-destruction. Director Karel Reisz is content to assume that is the underlying goal of all gamblers and fails to bring any depth to his one-note analysis. Robert Altman’s freewheeling California Split is The Gambler’s antithesis. Although the focus is on the gambler’s psyche here as well, Altman splits it into two distinct personalities: the reckless clown (Elliott Gould) and the addicted loser (George Segal). Altman avoids the usual clichés by dispensing with plot entirely. Altman is clearly more interested in the world these men inhabit than in the actual games, and he wins with the best hand in poker.

New on DVD this Tuesday (May 22): Constellation, Fay Grim, Memory, and The Breed.
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