Calling a movie Poker Face should imply something about its ability to conceal its secrets behind an unreadable facade, but Russell Crowe’s second spin in the director’s chair doesn’t even give you the chance to speculate about its bluffs before showing its hand. A thriller about poker-playing childhood friends—led by Jake Foley (Crowe), who made the first online poker service, then turned it into military-grade surveillance software “by restructuring the code from cards to countries” (???)—Poker Face layers its schemes on top of one another, hoping something interesting will happen through sheer volume. But, as any card player worth his chips should know, trying to make up for bad hands by playing more of them is a surefire way to go broke.
That’s antithetical to the themes of Poker Face, which is as much about conspicuous wealth and what to do with it as it is poker, friends or crime. Co-written, directed and starring Crowe, its navel-gazing about money and meaning could only come from a longtime A-lister facing down his mortality. If that’s not convincing enough for you, I could point to its first few minutes, which include:
- Cloying voiceover
- A golden-hued friendship flashback
- An ayahuasca montage of flop sweat, campfire harmonica and ocean waves
After this and other mind-numbing stage-setting, Jake assembles his now-grown buddies—Michael (Liam Hemsworth), Alex (Aden Young), Paul (Steve Bastoni) and, eventually, Andrew (RZA)—alongside his lawyer Sam (Daniel MacPherson) at his billionaire bunker. The only one with a personality is Michael, who’s a suicidally sad alcoholic, and everyone’s an Aussie…except RZA, who apparently grew out of his accent since his sepia-toned youth. Also, do not try to do the math on how these folks all grew up together.
Jake’s friends have a plot against him, he and Andrew have a plot against them, and it’s all born from a tertiary plot instigated by someone’s grown-up bully. It’d be frustratingly complicated if it wasn’t instead frustratingly asinine, with everyone getting sat down in a circle and airing their dirty laundry. This blunt-trauma storytelling tactic reflects the rest of the filmmaking.
The screenplay is as obvious on screen as a badly marked card: Whether it’s learning that Jake’s favorite daughter (Molly Grace) is also his only daughter (hardee har) or that his life has a countdown timer thanks to pancreatic cancer, we can practically see the “Backstory:” notecard it was all written on. The few melodramatic turns the plot holds, including inter-friend infidelity, are dropped like folded hands, any emotional impact discarded in the hope of saving time and money. Crowe wrote the film with Stephen M. Coates (whose other feature credit is John Doe: Vigilante, as generic in title as this movie is in content), and if only he’d stopped there.
The better a filmmaker gets, the more they’re willing to leave to their audience. On the other end of that spectrum, Crowe painstakingly patronizes us. He inserts momentary re-flashbacks to the opening flashback whenever one of Jake’s friends is introduced, in case we forgot the main piece of information in the movie (aside from “Jake is rich”): Jake and his pals go way back. Crowe is also of the opinion that a hazy and obscured frame is an artsy frame, so he asks cinematographer Aaron McLisky to flood his images with sunlight, blurry taillights and other shorthand indicators of drug-addled vision, time-mellowed memory and smoke-filled back rooms. The sparse action scenes are useless jumbles, tossing bodies in misblocked blurs of messy motion—like a human game of 52-card pickup—or encased in total darkness. If we can’t see anything, this gamble suggests, maybe we won’t think that what we see is bad. The actual result is us realizing that 86 minutes spent looking at nothing is just a wasted nap.
When the well-cast bad guys (a bearded and manic Paul Tassone; a weaselly Benedict Hardie) finally arrive at the generic, white-and-modern mansion, it’s a little shocking that Poker Face is still trying to convince us that it has stakes. We’re not worried that Jake’ll be robbed of his art or cash. He’s stupid rich and terminally ill. His friends’ lives aren’t in danger. They sit in a panic room that the thieves can’t even locate. So the tangible penstroke of the writers intervenes, badly writing itself out of a corner and, in so doing, blotting out any of our remaining interest.
Poker Face is less interesting as an object than as a result of a process. Even though Crowe wasn’t originally supposed to direct, he still co-wrote the script and aimed to star in it, which means he was still attempting to reckon with eternity through the language of a thriller—only now in the dissociated position of directing himself. His wealthy character, beloved by his friends and daughter, confronts a kind of death wish with an enlightening drug trip. But in this transactional world, you can’t even be an ayahuasca douche without an ulterior motive. Imagine throwing up in a bucket and it’s not even for fun. He’s here to get something, so he can confront those around him with the same thing haunting him. There’s nothing spiritual here, beyond memories, and even they are simply the ephemera tracking the development of flesh-and-blood figures. Jake’s world, and end, is one of practical matters, of poisons (be they liquor, cigar smoke, or truth serum), of cards, of information and data. This subtext imbues the otherwise empty Poker Face with an intriguing look into the psyche of—-or at least what speaks creatively to, and really, what’s the difference?—an A-lister who can be picky with his projects. But beyond the meta, beyond the head games, there’s a fat lot of nothing in its hand.
Director: Russell Crowe
Writer: Stephen M. Coates, Russell Crowe
Starring: Russell Crowe, Liam Hemsworth, RZA, Elsa Pataky, Brooke Satchwell, Aden Young, Steve Bastoni, Daniel MacPherson
Release Date: November 16, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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