Made-in-Vegas 'Lucky You' finally gets its shot

In Hollywood's high-stakes game, you've got to play the cards you've got. Even if it's a bum deal.

Just ask Curtis Hanson, who shared a screenplay adaptation Oscar in 1998 for "L.A. Confidential" -- but lost the best director race to "Titanic's" James Cameron.

Hanson's eclectic filmography ranges from a rap drama (2002's "8 Mile") to a quirky literary adaptation (2000's "Wonder Boys"), from a chick flick (2005's "In Her Shoes") to thrillers indoor (1992's "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle") and out (1994's "The River Wild").

Hanson thought a drama set in Las Vegas, about the world of professional poker, would be a winning cinematic hand -- at least when he was filming "Lucky You" here in 2005.

Between then and today, however, "Lucky You" had six release dates -- and six postponements. Originally slated to debut Dec. 16, 2005, the movie's most recent release date was March 16.

Finally, "Lucky You" gets its big-screen shot, opening today -- its lucky seventh release date -- against the summer's first presumed blockbuster, "Spider-Man 3."

"It's very frustrating," Hanson acknowledges in a telephone interview from his Southern California office, a few days before "Lucky You's" premiere Tuesday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. "It's not a weekend we would have picked."

But, he reasons, "I have a feeling not everybody is going to want to swing with Spidey."

Not when they can hang out in Las Vegas with "Lucky You's" Huck, Billie and L.C. -- alias Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall.

"I always wanted to make a movie set in the world of poker playing," says Hanson, who found what he was looking for in a script by Oscar-winning "Forrest Gump" screenwriter Eric Roth.

Its focus on a high-flying player (Bana), the son of a two-time poker champ (played by Duvall), provided an intriguing set-up, Hanson explains.

"All of the skills that make one a great poker player are almost opposite of the skills needed to be a great parent," the director observes, describing top players as "relentlessly aggressive, self-centered, duplicitous. No empathy, no sympathy," he points out. "As a parent, one needs to put the other person first."

Another draw: the changing times that have made poker not just a game but a national craze, on the Internet and on television.

"I became very aware that the poker world was undergoing enormous change," Hanson says, explaining his decision to set "Lucky You" in 2003, the first year "hole cameras" were used at the World Series of Poker, enabling TV viewers to see the players' hidden cards.

"You could just tell" that the game was changing, the director recalls, likening it to "the Old West, when the railroad tracks came through town, or the telegraph wires came in."

The changing-times contrast also applies to the movie's Las Vegas setting, Hanson says.

Throughout "Lucky You," the movie shifts between venerable downtown locales -- including the old Binion's Horseshoe, White Cross Drugs and Dino's Lounge -- and suburban Summerlin.

"I love going into other worlds when I make a movie," Hanson explains. "I enjoy trying to capture the truth of a location," whether it's "8 Mile's" Detroit rap battles or "In Her Shoes' " Florida retirement community.

In "Lucky You," the contrast between old and new Las Vegas illustrates that, "in every city in our country, things that are real are torn down and replaced with pretend" things, Hanson says. "Las Vegas is an extreme example," he adds, citing the Strip's make-believe versions of Paris, New York and Venice.

As a result, Hanson wanted to "show a taste of the old and the new, in the same way you're seeing poker on the cusp of changing," he explains.

The movie's authenticity extends to "Lucky You's" pivotal poker games, overseen by legendary player Doyle Brunson, who helped recruit fellow players for the movie -- and helped Hanson review the movie's poker games, hand by hand and bet by bet.

Brunson also provided another major assist -- by coaching Duvall, who initially turned down the role he plays because he "knew nothing of cards," Hanson explains. "He felt if he couldn't go to the truth, he didn't want to do it." Brunson "not only talked him into it, we got him with Doyle and he took on the challenge."

As for the challenge of filming in Las Vegas, "it's not the easiest thing," Hanson acknowledges. "But what we found is, when people realized how seriously we were trying to present" the game, "they wanted to help."

But "Lucky You's" game -- and its appeal -- extend beyond the poker table, the director maintains.

"The best poker players know that it's not a game of cards but a game of people," he says. "That's the world this movie's in."