One of Russell Crowe’s greatest strengths as a movie star is his ability to make it look easy. When he’s at his best, it often looks like he’s barely trying. Whether it be heroic vengeance (Gladiator), bold leadership (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), unhinged––ahem––madness (Unhinged), or anything in between, he appears incredibly comfortable. When Crowe is in the director’s chair, he seems to be trying a bit too hard. At least so far. Poker Face––marking his first screenplay credit and second directorial feature following The Water Diviner in 2015––is a lot of things at once.
Crowe plays Jake Foley, a billionaire who got rich after he developed tech for early online poker that then got repurposed for military use. A sepia-toned flashback leads into an extended shamanic drug trip that seems to clarify a few moral quandaries for Jake, who then enacts a deeply convoluted night of high-stakes poker with his best buds (Liam Hemsworth, Aden Young, and Steve Bastoni) as a sort of last will and testament. You see, he is dying. The only other person who knows is his lawyer (Daniel MacPherson). RZA also shows up as Jake’s savvy business partner, and the picture could have used a bit more of him throughout.
The plan is interrupted by a trio of thieves (Paul Tassone, Matt Nable, and Benedict Hardie) who are after Jake’s cavalcade of priceless paintings. Now, this central narrative alone is engaging on its own. Unfortunately, Crowe doesn’t appear to agree. So much of the film’s 94-minute runtime is submerged in subplots and side threads that we are given precious little character development and precious few thrills.
There is a germ of an idea here: what can a filthy rich person do to atone for the immoral misdeeds from which his wealth comes? It’s an engaging enough question to ponder these days. And while Crowe the actor is more than capable of imbuing Jake with both introspection and ennui, Crowe the director doesn’t give him the time or space to stick the landing. Hemsworth steals a scene and a half playing a lovable scum-bum, while the other two buds never quite rise above the fray. Tassone plays the lead thief with acceptable menace and a touch of gonzo bombast. These are small compliments ultimately, as Poker Face does not work on the whole. Elsa Pataky is a welcome sight, then is gone just as fast. Similarly are Jake’s new wife and daughter (Brooke Satchwell and Molly Grace), who factor in when needed for the men’s plight or not at all.
All of this being said, Crowe is searching for something as a filmmaker. His first two features may not work as constructed, but it’s clear the themes and emotions within are important to him. There is ambition at the edges, here’s hoping the third time is the charm.
Poker Face is now in theaters and arrives on VOD on November 22.