As much as I’m a fan of films that mix tones and genres to create something new, I confess that the biggest issue I have with the Russell Crowe-directed Australian feature Poker Face is that it can’t decide what it wants to be. Depending on which sliver of the story you step into, the movie is a tale of boyhood friendship that continues through adulthood; it’s a heist thriller about a group of thieves breaking into a billionaire’s house to steal his art collection while said billionaire and his buddies are hiding in a panic room trying to foil the crime; it’s a family drama about a dying father trying to set the stage for his daughter and cheating wife after his death; or it’s a tense story about a high-stakes poker game that could seal the fate of its winner. And of course because Poker Face is all of these things, it’s actually none of them.
Working from a screenplay by Crowe and Stephen M. Coates, the movie stars Crowe as Jake Foley, the aforementioned billionaire who, as a teen, survived a beatdown by local bullies with the help of a hand of poker and his best friends. Foley grew up to be a professional poker player and ended up using his money wisely. But along the way, his loving wife died, leaving him to take care of their daughter, Rebecca (Molly Grace). He did end up marrying again (to Nicole, played by Brooke Satchwell), but the relationship seems more transactional than loving, although she has been a good mother to his daughter.
Because Jake trusts no one, he’s keeping close tabs on both his wife and his friends, all of which are up to something shady. The grown friends are played by Aden Young as Alex, Steve Bastoni as Paul (who is sleeping with Nicole), Liam Hemsworth as Michael, and RZA as Andrew, all of whom are called together for something of a boys’ weekend, which ends up being a poker game in which Jake gives each player $5 million in chips, winner take all. As it turns out, all of his friends are betraying him in one way or another, and this game is a way to wipe the slate clean, repair whatever is broken among them, and let everyone know what is going on with Jake’s health. That is until the art theft kicks into gear (also the fault of one of his friends). But the break-in brings the friends together in ways that are both tense and ludicrous.
The biggest issue with Poker Face (and there are a few from which to choose) is that I never really understood what Jake’s motivation was for being good to these men who has essentially turned their backs on him. For reasons that are never completely explained, all of them seem to have carved out nice lives for themselves (save one), largely because of skills Jake taught them as kids. The film is meant to show us the unbreakable power of friendship, but I mostly wanted to stab his shifty friends. Jake should be building a lasting relationship with his daughter, but instead he goes to a makeshift shaman (Jack Thompson) after his diagnosis for spiritual guidance, which I guess is why he organizes the weekend. It’s all a bit lost in a kind of masculinity fog, and as much as I enjoyed watching Crowe actually act again—he’s actually quite engaging as this character—the film is too jumbled in its storytelling approach to simply settle in and let the world surround us.
I get it: bros will be bros. But I feel like Crowe is after something deeper than that with Poker Face, and he subverts his own film’s intentions by changing the game board every 20 minutes or so. The movie isn’t a complete wash, but it becomes a frustrating exercise to try and care about characters we never get to know. It feels like Crowe wasn’t confident in his primary theme of what breaks and repairs friendships, so he tossed in heaps of nonsense to cover his ass. Not only was that ploy unnecessary but it hurts his movie immeasurably.
The film is now playing in select theaters and will be available digitally beginning Nov. 22.
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