Tuesday, April 08, 2008

versus: 21 v. Deal

It seems as if the average amateur poker player stands a better chance of copping a squat at a WPT final table than Hollywood does of making an captivating movie about the game. Maybe it's a moot point; Texas Hold 'Em was still the rage a couple of years ago, but obsessions wax and wane, and based on the number of 75% markdowns I've recently seen, I'd have to reason that stores are clamouring to unload their professional poker sets and make room for the next fad (my vote's for bocce). Showbiz may have missed the showboat on this one.

And yet they keep trying. Remember 2007's Lucky You? Well, you'll probably just as soon forget this year's Deal, and it's likely worth your while to ignore 21 while you're at it. Neither of these films is abominable, but both are tremendously predictable and formulaic, and they fail even to portray the basic tension inherent to the game. I get sucked into watching these poker tournaments on television to the point where I won't even go to the bathroom until the river card is turned. At the cinema, however, I found myself chanting the words of Homer in The Simpsons Movie like a mantra: "I can't believe we're paying to see something we get on TV for free! If you ask me, everybody in this theater is a giant sucker!"

I wish this movie was a whole lot worse. Really bad movies can be fun to critique, but 21 is so steeped in mediocrity that it left me bereft of the initiative to compose any zingers, so I'll rely on Jim Emerson's 1 1/2 star review to detail the film's flaws:

"'Inspired by' the real-life story of the M.I.T. students who took Las Vegas casinos for millions, '21' has been reshaped to fit a simple movie template -- and it's nearly as much fun as watching an insurance professional compute actuarial tables ...

If you want to see how a formatted screenplay looks when it's actually on the screen (you can just about count the page numbers as they flip by, and maybe measure the margins, too), "21" may provide a practical lesson: How to follow all the "rules" and end up with zero. It's not unwatchable, but you could watch it with your eyeballs tied behind your back and enjoy it just as much.

Here's another example of a good story turned into a purely generic one -- no doubt with the aid of a Bob McKee screenwriting seminar and textbook."

And so it goes: Boy needs money, professor offers him an opportunity to learn how to count cards and beat the house at blackjack... Boy reluctantly agrees, enters the world of casino gambling, is successful at first but indulges too much, too arrogantly, and loses everything (his money, his mentor, his real friends, and the girl of his dreams). Boy gets a second chance, redeems himself, and walks away a winner.

21 has only one twist to speak of, but as Emerson notes:
"The movie itself has a tell: Watch for the moment when somebody obviously pulls a punch. If you hadn't figured out the rest of the movie by then, it gives away the whole thing."
Prepare yourself for 120 subsequent minutes of yawning and checking your watch.

...or no deal. The "BUZZ" about this upcoming release (according to imdb.com) is as follows:

"Texas Hold'em, like NASCAR, is one of those pop-culture obsessions from which Hollywood is yearning to make a profit. But let's be honest: The actual-real "World Series of Poker" TV broadcasts will for years bring in bigger audiences than this ill-cast, small-time production could ever dream of."

Actually, I think Burt Reynolds is quite suited (no pun intended) to play leathery erstwhile poker champ, Tommy Vinson, but I get where one might question his status as a bankable star. Bret Harrison's performance as Vinson's protege, on the other hand, seems to be derived from the Fred Savage school of acting, and his facial tics are more distracting on the big screen than Kevin Arnold's were cute on T.V.'s The Wonder Years.

Of course, a stone-face is not particularly effective cinematically (unless you are Buster Keaton), so cameo appearances by real life players such as Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, and Isabelle Mercier fall flat. But the movie's real problem is the same as 21's: you know what's going to happen and when. I would summarize Deal if I hadn't more-or-less described the plot when discussing the previous film.

the winner
There is clearly no real winner here. If pressed, I would have to recommend Deal based solely on its 80 minute running time, which allowed me an extra 43 minutes to waste playing a Hold 'Em tournament on-line. Followed by two hours of Celebrity Poker Showdown on Star TV... Oh, and then I watched NBC's Poker After Dark. I hope they make that bocce movie soon, 'cause I really gotta pee.

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