DealReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/25/08 00:00:00
“Deal” is yet another film in which a man of a certain age and experience who possesses a unique skill set in a specialized competitive world who takes an impulsive newcomer under his wing and tries to impart all of the knowledge and wisdom he has accumulated over the years--inevitably, a rift grows between the two and, often as not, the teacher and the pupil find themselves competing against one another in the final reels. Although many reviewers will no doubt cite Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money” as the chief influence on “Deal” with the only significant change being that the competitive world this time around involves poker instead of billiards, this is a storyline so basic and familiar that Burt Reynolds, who is the star this time around, has personally appeared in any number of movies throughout his long career that has utilized this particular narrative template that have ranged including “Hooper,” “Breaking In” and “Boogie Nights.” (“Driven” may well fall into this category as well but not even my Estella Warren fetish could possibly induce me to sit through it again in this lifetime to figure out if it qualifies.) However, while Reynolds has made plenty of films of this type over the years, I don’t recall any of them being as painfully dull and derivative as this low-energy look at the world of high-stakes card playing that is so listless and pointless that if it were a poker hand, it would consist of a 3 of clubs, a 7 of spades, a 9 of hearts, a jack of diamonds and the rules for draw and stud poker.Reynolds plays Tommy Vinson, a poker champion from back in the days before cable-TV tournaments and multi-million-dollar payouts who became reckless with his gambling and nearly lost everything until he promised his wife (Maria Mason) that he would never play poker again. (Oddly enough, she has framed his most famous winning hand and mounted it in a prominent spot in their living room, which seems a little cruel if you ask me.) While surreptitiously watching a poker tournament on television, he spots Alex Stillman (Bret Harrison), a green newcomer who is fresh out of college, socially awkward and looking for a life that doesn’t involve working in a law office with his fuddy-duddy father )Gary Grubbs), and while the kid is dumb, impulsive and callow enough to quickly get booted out of the competition after being outwitted by Jennifer Tilly (yes, I know that she is a poker player of some renown but I have never been one to let a simple fact get in the way of a snaky joke), Tommy believes that the kid has potential to go far. When he finally meets up with Alex, Tommy offers a proposal--he will bankroll Alex’s participation in a number of tournaments on the conditions that they split the winnings 50/50 and that Alex do everything that Tommy says without hesitation in order to soak up his vast knowledge of the game. What is this vast knowledge, you might ask. Well, Tommy helpfully points out that each player has a “tell”--an unconscious twitch or tic that serves as a signal that a player has either a really good hand or a really bad one. If this were real life, Alex might have responded to that bit of information by saying “That’s your big reveal--that he has a tell? Of course he has a tell! Everyone has a tell and not only that, everyone knows that everyone has a tell! Come on--I could have just watched “Rounders” again and gotten that little tidbit of information. Man, where is Gabe Kaplan when you need him?” Alas, this is not real life and so Alex, seemingly astounded by this bit of information, decides that Tommy is some kind of sage and agrees to partner up with him. (When “Deal” comes out on DVD, I dearly hope there will be a scene in which Alex is watching “Rounders” and suddenly slaps his forehead and exclaims “Boy, am I a dope.!”)
Anyway, by deceiving their loved ones, Alex and Tommy begin jetting across the country to poker tournaments and all is well for a while. Inevitably, though, Alex takes offence at something that Tommy has done for him and the two split their partnership just before a final tournament with a $12 million pot. By this time, of course, Alex is confident that he has what it takes to win everything and Tommy has found himself lured completely back into the world that he vowed to leave behind and enters the tournament himself. Sure, there are those pesky family members that both of them have been constantly lying to for the past few weeks, but once those minor bumps are smoothed over (it turns out that Tommy’s wife is completely okay with letting her husband return to the very thing that nearly destroyed their marriage and lives 25 years earlier), they turn out to be complete cool with everything. In news that will no doubt shock you to your very core, the tournament competition is soon whittled down to just Alex and Tommy and the stage is set for an epic battle of skill and nerve in which one will go home with $12 million and the other will go home with nothing but a measly $4 million.
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a poker-related faux-documentary entitled “The Grand” that essentially gave the Christopher Guest treatment to the world of high-stakes competitive poker. As you may recall, I praised that particular film for two reasons--it was often very funny and the poker action seemed to be reasonably convincing to my admittedly untrained eyes and ears (especially the final match--up, which I later discovered was completely unscripted and improvised by the actors playing for real). “Deal,” on the other hand, is so lousy that if it weren’t for the minor fact that “The Grand” cam out first, you might be convinced that it was made solely as a response to the utter ineptness of this one. The drama is non-existent, nearly all of the humor is inadvertent, the commercial plugs are so blatant (the last couple of reels are essentially an extended ad for “World Poker tour”) and there isn’t a single aspect that doesn’t come across as hollow and fake. This may seem odd since the film has gone to the trouble to truck in a bunch of real-life top-shelf poker players and announcers to add a sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings but they are handled so badly that they come across less like seasoned veterans recreating their milieu and more like a group of poorly-trained extras who have been mishandled by a director who has no idea of what to do with them. (If you ever want to disprove to someone the theory that every person is capable of portraying one role--themselves--all you need to do is point them in the direction of Vincent Van Patten’s “performance” as himself, a turn that will remind most viewers of nothing so much as a over-caffeinated tyke mugging for a home video camera.) Even the poker sequences ring false--this is another one of those movies in which everyone keeps coming up with once-in-a-lifetime hands with such regularity that it borders on self-parody.
Of course, there have been plenty of poker-related films in which the card action has been cheesy but the film as a whole has been entertaining (“The Cincinnati Kid” comes to mind) because they told interesting stories and involved interesting characters. “Deal,” on the other hand, is a lifeless slog right from the start and at times seems to go out of its way to be as predictable as possible. Although I could list any number of examples, I will focus on one particularly egregious example and that involves the presence of Shannon Elizabeth and how the film completely misuses it. She pops up (and out) partway through the proceedings as a barroom cutie who flirts with the ordinarily girl-shy Alex. From the way that this scene develops, it becomes kind of obvious that she is actually a prostitute--it becomes so obvious, in fact, that I just assumed that the screenplay was leaning in that direction as a set-up for a curve ball to come. For example, since Elizabeth is, in real life, apparently a celebrity poker player of some renown (possibly because the collective gaze of her opponents is so frequently directed about 18 inches below her eyeline that they are too distracted to figure out if she is wearing her poker face or not) and I was thinking that she would turn out to be another player who was using her considerable feminine wiles to subvert her potential competition. That might have been slightly interesting but that turns out not to be the case here--it soon develops that she really was a prostitute after all (much to Alex’s horror, even though he hasn’t forked over a cent) and once that revelation is made, the film has no idea of what to do with her and she just mysteriously disappears from the proceedings altogether without ever being referenced again.The best thing that one can say about “Deal” is that it isn’t the worst gambling-related film currently in release (which isn’t saying much since “21” is currently a leading competitor for the title of worst film of 2008) and the worst thing that one can say about it is that it isn’t appreciably better. This is a bummer from beginning to end--boring, humorless (with the possible exception of the moment when a commentator announces that a player has just managed to “pull off a Winona”) and filled with uninteresting characters portrayed by actors who can barely disguise their boredom. (Although Burt Reynolds has been in worse films than this, it says a lot that he frankly seemed somewhat more invested in the Uwe Boll joint “In the Land of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale” than he does here). At one point towards the end of “Deal,” a character remarks that “life is full of surprises.“ Too bad that the film itself chose not to follow this way of thinking.
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