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Once a Critic, Now a Player

After earning a reputation as a vituperative reviewer, Rod Lurie upped the ante and made the leap to filmmaker.

October 08, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

The night tumbles down on the quiet Westside residential street of Spanish-style bungalows and trim lawns as the ragtag gamblers trickle in and take their seats behind the Poker Table--not just any table, mind you, but the same used in the 1992 comedy "Honeymoon in Vegas."

The gamblers--all of whom work in the entertainment business--go by various monikers: Ahkman (a derivation of Aw C'mon). Dog. The Admiral. Heinz. Antoine. The Weather Boy. The Sheriff. And Rouge.

This is where you will find Rod Lurie one night a week, sitting in a cramped room dubbed the "permanent poker zimmer [room]" next to his card-playing, barbecue-munching pals. The repartee seesaws between clutch-your-stomach funny and off-color. The air is thick with the pungent smell of Cuban-made Montecristos that leave everyone's clothes reeking for days.

After two hands, Rouge Lurie is already down $250 and the football game on the TV in the corner isn't making matters any better. His team is down 19-6 in the fourth quarter.

But then Lady Luck plants a kiss. To the groans of his opponents, Rouge plops down his cards: an ace, 2, 3, 4 and 5--the unbeatable low hand and a straight that was the superior high hand, thus entitling him to the entire pot. Rouge leans over the "Honeymoon in Vegas" table and scoops up $450 in chips.

Like his poker game on this warm September night, Lurie's fledging film career has seen many ups and downs. Yet, with the release Friday of his new political thriller, "The Contender," Lurie is now on a roll.

Who could have imagined that this former film critic for Los Angeles magazine, whose acerbic reviews landed in Hollywood's mailboxes like hand grenades in the early to mid-1990s, would now be doing business with Steven Spielberg and be toasted at the Toronto Film Festival?

After all, this was a critic whose reviews, he said, read like "your next-door-neighbor after a couple of beers."

For example, Warner Bros. once banned him from screenings for an entire year after he wrote that Danny DeVito's appearance was akin to "a testicle with arms." Undaunted, Lurie managed to sneak into various Warner Bros. research screenings during the ban.

"I can be accused of a lot of things," Lurie said recently. "I can be accused of being acerbic as a critic and writer. I can be accused of not being a good critic and writer. But I don't think you'll find one person who will say I was a kiss-ass."

However, he now concedes, there were times when he went too far.

"I crossed the line with Danny DeVito and I crossed the line often with the way people look personally," he said. "Now that I make films, I understand those are merely cheap shots." When he wrote those things, Lurie explained, it was "more writing to amuse myself" than anything else.

*

Today, Lurie has accomplished what few film critics ever accomplish--successfully making the leap from reviewing movies to making them. Not bad for a guy who never attended film school.

His fortunes have risen on the strength of "The Contender," which he wrote and directed. Set in Washington, the film features a powerful cast headlined by Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Christian Slater.

Allen plays Sen. Laine Hanson, who is chosen by a Democratic president (Bridges) to replace a deceased vice president. Her appointment touches off a firestorm on Capitol Hill, where a wily committee chairman, Congressman Shelly Runyan (Oldman), tries to quash her nomination by dredging up an old college sex scandal.

"I knew I wanted to make a movie about a woman coming into power," Lurie said, "and how would people deal with that."

Allen, Oldman and Bridges are all receiving early Oscar buzz for their performances.

Indeed, on a recent episode of "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies," critic Roger Ebert said that Allen is sure to be an Academy Award contender as best actress this year, while fellow critic Richard Roeper went further, christening her "the favorite."

The way Lurie tells it, he wrote the movie out of his undying admiration of Allen as an actress. She earned Oscar nominations as Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and again for her role in "The Crucible."

The 38-year-old Lurie broached the idea of writing a screenplay at the 1999 L.A. Film Critics Assn. awards dinner.

"I sat down with Joan, who is a model of elegance, who said, 'You should really do that,' " Lurie added. "Her agent said, 'I promise we'll read it.' The truth is, I had no idea what I was going to write. All I knew, I had to write a role that Joan Allen could not say no to."

Once Allen was on board, Lurie's first choice as president was Paul Newman, but as far as he knew, Newman never opened the script. Lurie then asked himself, who's the young Paul Newman?, and came up with Jeff Bridges.

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