"Lucky You" is a movie about poker, romance and families and, luckily for us, writer-director Curtis Hanson has a feeling for all three. It's an entertaining movie; Hanson, the director of "L.A. Confidential" and "Wonder Boys," and co-writer Eric Roth get us into their alternative world of poker and luck with a good card player's easy skill. They build it around a character called Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), who initially seems like a figure of pure fantasy and wish fulfillment, a glib, energetic hunk of a guy who plays poker and women with what seems equal skill, but not always good results. And they make him live.
Huck is the son of another poker player, the legendary L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall). Huck starts out nearly busted, hocking some stuff, including an heirloom ring, at a Las Vegas pawn shop, and then working his way though low- and high-level games at his casino of choice. We soon learn he's busting his butt to get the $10,000 entry fee for the upcoming World Series of Poker -- an event L.C. has already won twice and is headed for again. And whenever L.C. shows up at the table, with his patented Duvall piercing eyes and half-grin, Huck loses his poker cool.
There's another flaw in the system: a recent Las Vegas arrival and would-be chanteuse named Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore). Huck's problem with his dad is that they're too much alike; his bond with Billie is frayed because they're too different. And Huck plays their love affair like he plays poker: cagey, bluffing, hiding his feelings, whereas she's open, sweet and clear.
Hanson and Roth shuffle the two sides of the movie, the poker tournament and the love affair, with a Howard Hawksian feel for casual professionalism. Hanson, a poker player himself, also gives the movie a lot of verisimilitude by filling the cast with well-known pro poker players (including Jack Binion, Johnny Chan and the movie's poker consultant, Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson) and using replicas of the old poker room at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino (for most of the game scenes) and Benny's Bullpen at Binion's Gambling Hall (for the climactic tourney).
There's a keen sense of familiarity here, down to the way Huck fiddles with his chips. The acting is natural, deft and seemingly effortless -- which you expect from Duvall, Charles Martin Smith (as Huck's bankroller) and Jean Smart (as player Michelle Carson), but not always from Bana or Barrymore.
The movie is not a poker version of "The Hustler." It's too easygoing and light. Huck may dance on the edge, making silly combination bets with the aptly named Ready Eddie ("Saturday Night Live's" Horatio Sanz), but he never shows much inner darkness, which is what Robert Altman got in "California Split" and Norman Jewison tried to get in "The Cincinnati Kid."
There's something missing in the movie -- that extra lift and surge of feeling that might have made it a minor classic. But "Lucky You" is maybe the next best thing: a relaxed-looking expert piece that immerses us in another world. At the end, Hanson has a bonus. He and his producers hired Bob Dylan for the Oscar-winning "Things Have Changed" in "Wonder Boys," and Hanson brings Dylan back here, for a folky, bluesy number called "Huck's Tune."
Dylan was always a movie buff and even occasionally a moviemaker. Now Hanson seems to have turned him into the new Johnny Mercer; "Huck's Tune" is an ideal curtain song.
Dylan's song typifies the movie: jokey and complex, happy and sad. "Lucky You" may have more skill than luck, but it never runs out of either.
"Lucky You." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some language and sexual humor. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. In general release.