REVIEW: “Poker Face” (2022)

Russell Crowe directs, writes, and stars in the new feature “Poker Face”, a puzzling movie built around a puzzling premise and hampered by puzzling execution. It’s a movie I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. It’s one that had me onboard with its early teases of some strange and knotty thriller. But then it plays out, and you quickly realize there’s not much to this unremarkable and frustratingly shallow endeavor.

The seasoned Crowe is too good not to give it his all, and he does that here. The Oscar winner has proven to be a great actor and his sadly underseen “The Water Diviner” from 2014 was a solid directorial debut. But here he handcuffs himself with a script full of gaping holes and head-scratching shortcuts. He writes a good enough setup – one that allows him to portray a character much different than most he’s played throughout his over 30-year career. But the lack of focus in his writing, particularly in the second half, is too much for his directing to overcome.

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

Crowe plays a billionaire tech mogul and high-stakes gambler named Jake Foley. Following a beautifully shot yet rather fruitless intro, we meet Jake solemnly admiring a painting at an art gallery. He’s approached by a young woman named Alyra who wants to paint his portrait for the Archibald Portrait Prize. He gives her his consent and she snaps his picture. “Maybe if I make the short list I will see you at the exhibition,” she hopefully comments. “No you won’t” he replies with an exasperated half-smile and walks away.

We learn the 57-year-old widower has just gotten a bad medical diagnosis and he hasn’t long to live. From there it’s on to a strange sequence as Jake drives his fancy Rolls-Royce deep into the country where he consults with a grizzled old shaman (played by character actor Jack Thompson). The mystic gives Jake some drug-induced peace of mind and sends him home with a prescription. With his newfound clarity, Jake begins getting things in order with the help of his lawyer and personal right-hand man, Sam (Daniel MacPherson). One of his first orders of business – a poker night with friends.

That may sound shallow and frivolous, but Jake actually has deeper intentions. Seeing beyond the facade of success, Jake has come face-to-face with his mortality. It has caused him to self-evaluate and reflect. It’s also led him to examine his old relationships, namely those with his childhood chums Michael (Liam Hemsworth) a struggling alcoholic; Alex (Aden Young) a published author; Paul (Steve Bastoni), a politician; and his business partner and best friend, Drew (RZA). Each have their own unflattering secrets that Jake wants to root out.

So Jake sets up an elaborate plan under the guise of the ultimate poker night. He sends a message for his old friends to gather at a fancy hotel. There they meet Sam who gives them keys to luxury cars and GPS coordinates to Jake’s swanky, state of the art, oceanside home. When they arrive they’re greeted by Jake who offers them an intriguing choice. They can keep the luxury car they drove, no strings attached, or they can trade it in for $5 million in chips and a spot at a high stakes game of Texas hold ‘em (winner take all, of course).

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

Most of us would probably keep the car and sell it. But these guys all turn it their keys and collect their chips. Now you might be thinking this is where we get the poker in “Poker Face”. Well, technically yes. But there’s only about five minutes of actual card playing. Michael, Alex, and Paul quickly discover that their old pal Jake has something else up his sleeve. It all sounds goofy yet kinda cool, but the suspense is squandered when a goon named Victor (Paul Tassone) shows up with his armed henchmen to rob the place. What unfolds is a tensionless and woefully underdeveloped final act that guts the movie of any remaining potential.

To Crowe’s credit, he throws out some clever ideas and opens up a number of compelling themes. And his restrained, lived-in performance is a nice plus. But his storytelling never quite matches his ambition. Too often the movie bolts from one place the another, leaving out what feels like critical details and skipping over opportunities to flesh out its story more. And the practically non-existent character development in some cases really hurts, making it hard to invest in anyone or anything we say. It’s a shame because Crowe can handle himself behind the camera. His script here just doesn’t give him the room to really show it. “Poker Face” is out now in select theaters.


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