Deal (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Poker is one of those games that, unless you're a die-hard, is a lot more fun to play than to watch. Nevertheless, because on-line poker sites have become so popular in recent years, there has been a upsurge in TV poker shows. The unfortunate byproduct of this "poker revolution" is that Hollywood has decided to get into the mix and, in true big studio fashion, filmmakers have nailed down the formula (which is loosely based on the long-standing one for the sports movie) and don't deviate from the template. Deal is the kind of mess that results from this slavish lack of creativity. The film has more of a checklist of clichés than an actual script and, when it comes to the cast, director Gil Cates Jr. is scraping the bottom of the barrel. There's no compelling reason to see Deal. Everything it offers is familiar to the extent where even though it's not a remake, it feels like one.

Alex (Bret Harrison) is an up-and-coming poker player who has just graduated college but is unimpressed by the job his father lands for him as a law clerk. When an on-line tournament victory provides him with a spot at a table for a televised big bucks game, Alex thinks his ship has come in. He loses big but old-timer Tommy (Burt Reynolds), watching him play, thinks Alex has a shot at greatness, so he gets in touch and offers to teach him. Alex and Tommy become a team, and Tommy mentors Alex not only in the ways of card-playing but in the ways of life. This leads to Alex, who's nervous around women, hooking up with the drop-dead gorgeous Michelle (Shannon Elizabeth), who isn't what she seems to be. Eventually, Tommy and Alex's profitable partnership falters and they end up facing each other in a Poker Championship.

The fascination associated with watching card movies is learning some of the inside mechanics and tricks of the trade. That's an area where the recent 21 fell on its face and Deal doesn't do any better. There are some throw-away tips about reading "tells" but nothing interesting or insightful. I suspect real poker players may feel insulted by the gamesmanship displayed in this film (despite the participation of several real-life big-time players in cameos) since it's representative of how Hollywood thinks tournaments should unfold and bears little resemblance to what goes on in real games. The climactic "twist," in addition to having been done before, strains the film's minimal credibility past the breaking point.

Despite being dull and unsuspenseful, the poker sequences are the best things about Deal. The movie is dead-in-the-water when it comes to character development and interaction. We get disapproval from Alex's father, who believes his son should pursue "a real job." Tommy's wife leaves because she sees him falling back into his old ways. Michelle is a blip on the radar. And the central relationship, between Tommy and Alex, isn't sufficiently fleshed out for the final confrontation between the two to generate any emotional heft. For a story built on this many clichés and contrivances to have a chance, the characters have to be real. They aren't. Plus, there are times when the movie feels like a blinking product placement: for Vegas, for on-line poker sites, and for poker TV shows. The only organization not given its due is Gamblers Anonymous.

Burt Reynolds brings a certain gravitas to his role, and his stoicism at least allows us to accept him as Tommy. It's not a great performance but it's passable and it's made more impressive by the amateurish work turned in by his fellow cast-mates. Bret Harrison is awful, bringing little more to the part than an ability to recite the dialogue without stumbling over his lines. Shannon Elizabeth isn't required to do much in the way of acting. She looks hot and that's about all that's needed. Charles Durning and Jennifer Tilly get prominent billing but if you blink you'll miss both of them. Durning is in two scenes and Tilly has two or three lines.

Is the movie a complete disaster? No. It's the kind of disposable entertainment that can waste away 90 minutes of insomnia-driven late night channel surfing. The idea of taking a trip to a multiplex or spending money on a ticket for this kind of recycled, unoriginal material boggles the mind. This movie is playing with an empty hand.

Deal (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-04-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1