Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Most Accurate Movie about Las Vegas Feels Mostly Wrong

Hollywood likes to speed up Las Vegas, portraying it as exciting, fast-moving, with such an overwhelming feeling of luck that it's possible for anyone to make it big, and those who don't are merely entertaining side characters.

Las Vegas is exciting, and depending on who you are, where you are, it can feel fast-moving, especially if you frequent its myriad nightclubs. And if you've got some really good hands going, then there can be an overwhelming feeling of luck. But Hollywood's Las Vegas is not the real Las Vegas. It doesn't move that fast. It takes time to get there, to settle in briefly before you head out on the Strip, to take in all that's around you, all the zippy colors, all the sounds, all that evidence, such as a smaller-scale Eiffel Tower that marks the beginning of Paris Las Vegas, that shows you will not find all of this anywhere else. And what you experience here is purely yours. You may be a gambler, or you may simply be content walking through the various casinos and eating at some of the buffets they offer. You may like to see some of the shows, such as Donny & Marie or Celine Dion or Elton John, or, who knows, you might be interested in the interior designs of Vegas bathrooms. Whatever it is, no two experiences are alike.

There is only one movie made by Hollywood, Warner Bros. specifically, that portrays Las Vegas with 100% accuracy. It doesn't seem like it's of Hollywood, since it was shuffled around so much on the calendar before eventually opening in a little-faith slot against Spider-Man 3 in May 2007. It's Lucky You, starring Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, and Robert Duvall, with supporting roles filled by Debra Messing, Horatio Sanz, Saverio Guerra (Remember Bob on Becker?), Danny Hoch, and a cameo by Robert Downey, Jr.

Before I go further, I saw a lot of bad movies, and was ticked off by many of them when I wrote movie reviews for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Teentime pages (in the back of their weekend Showtime section every Friday) when I was in middle and high school, and for Film Threat ( The memories of what teed me off about those movies are gone. I can find my old reviews on the Film Threat website, and I can probably remember briefly why I was so mad, but that full-on feeling is gone.

There is one particular anger I remember vividly, though. I always went for novel experiences in moviegoing, especially advance screenings, which usually included movie theaters a bit of a drive from Pembroke Pines, one of which was AMC Aventura 24 on the third floor of the Aventura Mall. There was one Saturday morning screening there of Pokemon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes Back about two weeks before its release on November 10, 1999. I don't know why I went, but I think it was one of the first invitations I'd received to an advance screening, so I wanted to see what this was about, what great fortune there was in regularly writing movie reviews. Being on a Saturday morning, the audience was made up entirely of kids, and parents who would rather be anywhere else. Some had won their tickets on the radio, but I had no trouble finding a seat since there was a row roped off for press, which meant me and a few other critics. But it didn't matter. I was angry after it was over. I couldn't understand how movies like this could be made for kids, movies without thought. I was 15, and had been a huge fan of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and had liked Pogs, so I hadn't thought about the gobs of cash to be made by the studios that released these movies, Warner Bros. in this case.

After leaving the auditorium the movie had shown in and the theater itself, I went to the box office and found out on the digital showtime board there that The Straight Story was showing. This was also being featured at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, and I was thinking of asking my parents to take me there to see it. But here it was, no film festival crowd involved. Upon meeting Mom and Dad at the Johnny Rocket's across the way, I asked them if they could wait a little over two hours more so I could see The Straight Story. Then at least, Dad didn't like to spend a lot of time anywhere, so it was big of him to say yes, and Mom did too, and I got more money, and off I went.

The chance to see a movie about an old man driving his tractor from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin to see his estranged brother, because he could not drive a car anymore, was not one I was going to let pass by, especially since it was directed by David Lynch, never known for such gentleness in filmmaking. And it was so worth it. It completely washed away the ill will I had toward Pokemon: The First Movie. It's why the anger I had then is faded today, dull. I remember it, and then it doesn't matter.

I feel a kind of anger toward Lucky You that will never go away. I know Las Vegas, and though I haven't yet been to all the casinos, give me time when I finally have the time and much closer proximity as a resident. Lucky You is the Las Vegas I know, especially in one shot. The camera focuses on the Eiffel Tower at Paris, then pans diagonally down to the waterfalls at Bellagio before settling on Huck (Eric Bana) and Billie (Drew Barrymore). There is no music accompanying the shot. It is the pure atmosphere of Las Vegas. It is exactly what it feels like at 9 p.m., at 10 p.m. There is an underlying nervous energy, but it's very faint. Where do you want to go? What do you want to experience? But there is also such pervasive peacefulness. This is where you belong. Stay here. Take in the waterfalls. Listen. Listen. Look. Listen.

Lucky You is set in 2003 Las Vegas, and is about Huck, who wants a spot in the World Series of Poker, who, in the opening moments of the movie, is trying to pawn off a presumably untouched digital camera, still in the box. His monologue in trying to convince the grizzled pawnbroker (Phyllis Somerville) to take the camera is brilliant. He seems to have a confidence that shimmers around him, and yet, it's the egregious fault of the screenplay by Eric Roth and director Curtis Hanson that there isn't a great deal to him beyond what you see right there. However, the pawnbroker is one personality you're likely to see in the real Las Vegas, so that begins the movie's accuracy. When Huck drives his motorcycle to the service entrance of a casino on the Strip, that is the real Las Vegas around him, but there are no tricks to try to make it faster than it appears. Hanson seems to know intimately what Las Vegas feels like, and so it's quiet all around, save for the music during these moments.

Charles Martin Smith plays Roy, Huck's chief backer in his attempt to get into the World Series of Poker. Currently, he's better known as the director of Dolphin Tale, also released by Warner Bros. Roy wants this investment to pay off, and says to Huck at one point, "You want sympathy? You'll find it between "shit" and "syphilis" in the dictionary." You don't have to know anyone like Roy around Las Vegas, and yet you can sense people around you that are like him. They're around. Vegas births them.

There's also Saverio Guerra as Lester, who's known for oddball bets. Before the end of the movie, he takes on a bet that he can live in the men's bathroom for 30 days at Caesars Palace without leaving it. Lester is quite possibly the most entertaining character in Lucky You. The real Las Vegas is undoubtedly stocked with Lesters. They're as numerous as the Roys.

It's always nice to see Drew Barrymore in any movie, but she's saddled with so little to do as Billie Offer, who's moved to Las Vegas to try to be a singer. She meets Huck and gets involved with him, despite her sister (Debra Messing), likely an ex of Huck's, warning her off. I don't know if there's anyone like Billie in Las Vegas, not yet, and I wouldn't actively seek them. There probably is, but surely they're not saddled by the silliness the screenplay forces Barrymore to work with, such as when Huck is teaching her how to play poker. Despite my fondness for Barrymore, more moments with Lester and Roy would have been more welcome.

Huck's chief antagonist is his father, L.C. (Robert Duvall), though L.C. isn't the antagonist type. He just wasn't much of a father, and also happens to be the greatest poker player in the world, and shows it against Huck, but that's just how the game is. In Las Vegas, you have your money, you have whatever luck you're dealt, and for poker players, that depends on what cards you get. That's just the way it goes. But there's so many scenes between Huck and L.C. like this, resentment included, that it becomes tiresome.

Lucky You is so thoroughly squandered on the dealings between L.C. and Huck, and Huck and Billie, that sometimes the real Las Vegas is lost. The golf course scenes that include Horatio Sanz as the one who bets Lester that he can't do this or that (such as the Caesars Palace bathroom bet) don't feel anything like Las Vegas. Yes, there are golf courses in Las Vegas, but this feels disjointed. And yet, Las Vegas is still there somehow. The moments are fewer and fewer as it goes on, but you can still feel it. But then, maybe that's the intent. For a visitor to Las Vegas (which Huck isn't, but in the span of this movie, we are), it is so vivid when we get there, and we appreciate it as the days go on, but when we leave, there are only bits of it that cling to us. We can remember fondly what we did, but on that last day, it's time to pack, time to go home. We have to get back on the road, have to catch that flight.

Ideally, my kind of Vegas movie would have the scenery and atmosphere as Curtis Hanson has captured it, so close to the real thing that you could jump into the screen and be there if that were possible, combined with the Las Vegas segment in My Blueberry Nights, with Natalie Portman as a poker player too, who knows more about the odds and tells than about people as they are, whereas Norah Jones sees people as they are.

I'll always somewhat like Lucky You for finally getting Las Vegas right where so many others have gotten it wrong, but loathe it because of those missed opportunities for a better story. With the exceptions of Roy, Lester, and Robert Downey, Jr. holding down a telephone psychiatry service and other businesses across many phone lines at a bar, you can find more interesting characters at Serendipity 3 outside of Caesars Palace, known for its frozen hot chocolate.

But until you can get to Las Vegas, this is as close as you'll get to it in a movie. For the most part, this is exactly right.

(I thought about Lucky You while at Walmart today, walking from the bakery with a few free samples back to Mom and Meridith at the refrigerated yogurt case, and also wondered if I should get it on DVD for the scenes I like, or buy it from Amazon Instant Video to watch online whenever I feel like it. It's cheap enough both ways, a little over $3 from the sellers at Amazon Marketplace, though a bit bumped up for online viewing at $5.99. I know those scenes well enough, but what do I need them for? Is it because I want those good feelings about Las Vegas that I get when watching it being accurately portrayed? But surely I'll be there one day to experience it again, and again, and again. I'm conflicted, and then I'm not. And then I am again. Yes. No. Or maybe I'll stick with the Henderson Press for now, downloading all the back issues from the website and reading them, paying full attention to where I'll actually be, with Las Vegas comfortably nearby.)