Poker Face (2022)

A mess of a movie that's almost worth watching to appreciate how bad it really is

Still of Russell Crowe and Liam Hemsworth in ‘Pokerface’ (2022)

Russell Crowe and Liam Hemsworth in ‘Pokerface’ (2022)

Synopsis

Good friends. Australian teens, out in the country, taking a swim together. Playing poker. Joshing. Having fun. The poker player’s brash. His bestie is quiet and supportive. One’s cautious. Another’s a braggart. The other just a hanger-on. A bully arrives, tries to rip them off. They make a plunging escape. Promising start.

Of course, we catch them up years later. The brash poker player is Jake Foley (Russell Crowe), who, along with cautious Mike Nankervis (Liam Hemsworth) and supportive Andrew Johnson (RZA), became wealthy when they launched an online poker business in the early days of the Internet. The game algorithm morphed into black-ops level government security software, which made Jake obscenely wealthy. (How that could actually happen is left to our imagination.)

But Jake’s got a problem. He’s dying. So he’s tying up loose ends, writing a will, making final mysterious arrangements. And he’s put together a poker game with his old buds (except mysteriously absent Andrew) to clear the air. They meet at his isolated mansion, filled with art, and they begin to reconnect over cards. It’s a simple plot, really.

Well, no it’s not. There’s Jake’s visit with a shaman, where he gets some sort of truth serum. There’s extended narration to fill in the details of his ascent to billionaire. He meets a lady in a museum who wants to paint a portrait of his expressive face (huh? not a poker face?). And then on poker night, he’s got other plans that involve sending the staff home early. Staking his friends to a fabulous winner-takes-all game of Texas Hold’em. Infidelity, blackmail. Burglars! Yeah, all that.

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So what seemed like it might be a nice buddy movie is, well, a run-away mess. The promise of a tense poker game where secrets are revealed, confessions made, and reconnections established is plenty to snare our interest. But actually, very little poker is played, and it’s mostly a one-in-a-million hand at that.

But Director Crowe’s attempt to coax a sad-sack poker face out of actor Crowe results more often in just a blank stare. He seemed to have a final scene he wanted to land on, but he skitters this way and that with plot contrivances. Just getting through those early scenes with the shaman is hard enough, and just when it’s beginning to pick up with the poker game, it’s off to a guns-blazing distraction.

Hemsworth puts on a workmanlike performance as the alcoholic ex-partner. RZA is fine in his limited but crucial role. His other friends are almost indistinguishable. It’s actually the bad guys, giving the expected over-the-top, mouth-frothing spectacle, that add the occasional splat of humor.

So we arrive at a bit of a Catch 22. This movie is bad and thus not worth your time. But this movie is also SO bad it’s almost worth watching to admire how far off track it spins before the final scene.

The one redeeming feature is the final line in the denouement. It comes out of left field, with only the bare minimum of previous action to locate it in the plot. So let’s do a spoiler so you don’t have to fast forward to get there: “Be kind to each other. Don’t be glass half empty or half full people. Be the kind of people who know whatever triumph or disaster comes along, you can always refill the glass.”

Alas, I can’t be kind ... Poker Face is not half but wholly empty.

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Be kind to each other. Don’t be glass half empty or half full people. Be the kind of people who know whatever triumph or disaster comes along, you can always refill the glass.

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