Movie Review: Stuey2 years ago
Stuey, or High Roller, or High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story depending on when and where you first got to see it, is the 2003 biopic of the late great Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar. It’s written and directed by A W Vidmer, who did nothing prior and nothing post Stuey, and stars the Sopranos’s Michael Imperioli somewhat implausibly in the title role.
The movie opens with the final table of the 1997 WSOP with Stuey heads up for his third championship bracelet. Then it cuts forward to a crappy motel room one year later, where Stuey wakes to find a stranger in his room, smoking a cigar waving a knife and being generally a bit threatening. In return for not being cut to pieces Stuey, tells the man his story: starting from when he was but a wee lad being beat up for lunch money in New York… From there we get his life in a series of flashbacks, always returning to the hotel room and the somewhat transparent mystery of who Stuey’s visitor might be.
The story Vidmer has to work with is a classic: a kid who was in with the mob at an early age, winning thousands of dollars at gin rummy, millions of dollars at poker. A rebel and an addict, Stu was a damaged but brilliant human being who burnt out before he could achieve everything expected for him, but also before he faded away. He had a big personality, a reputation for needling, for being competitive to the point of self-destruction, he was almost banned from the World Series in 1982 for an incident in which he spat in one of Binion’s dealer's faces.
Most of this troubled life gets pretty good coverage in the movie. ‘Good coverage’ in the sense of thorough – the film itself is somewhat patchy.
Swings and Roundabouts
This review is brought to you by the word ‘uneven’.
The writing is uneven, moving from eloquent and witty to the downright idiotic across single scenes at times. Plenty of the jokes land well, but a lot of the talk is crude exposition or clumsy characterisation.
The framing device is sort of clever, and pays off nicely, if predictably, but feels out of place in a film which in several scenes seems to be trying for documentary realism and in others super-slick.
The film is visually uneven. Moments of artistic framing, of complicated steady cam work are shown right alongside shot-reverse-shot tedium. The opening credits are very slickly set up with a mockumentary feel that really sells the coming poker scene.
Elsewhere the visual trickery falls flat on its face trying to be clever. In one scene the film has a discussion happen in the background of a scene, with a poker game in front. We can see the emotional consequences of the scene, but only after a weird twenty second period of nothingness in which we have to listen to the gibble-gabble of extras.
The acting is incredibly uneven, occasionally there are middle-school playwright's words being spoken in middle-school actor’s diction. In other scenes everyone is a consummate professional and you feel every facial expression. The jackknifing between them could put a guy’s back out just watching it.
I also had real trouble buying Imperioli as Stuey. It was only when a passing waiter tried to ID him and he had to bluff his way out with a roll of Benjamins, that I remembered that the obviously thirty-something Imperioli was playing a teenager.
It doesn’t get any better in the later scenes, he just doesn’t have that gangly, strung out look that Ungar had. He looks like he just came from the gym, not a 36 hour cards and coke binge.
And the repeated appearance of Vince Van Patten put me off, just because – you know – Vince Van Patten.
Money For Nothing
At the card table though, the film shines. The gin rummy scene where Stuey talks about reading his opponent is convincingly played, and is a real highlight. And there is one poker hand, based on a real hand played by Jack “Treetop” Straus, which is one of the best put together poker scenes in movie poker (see a longer analysis of that scene here).
The film also captures much of the Vegas high-stakes lifestyle, the thousands of dollars dropped playing golf, the exhausting grind of the poker tables, the spiritual toll of drugs and alcohol and living in a city without any clocks, of living with an addiction. But none of it works quite as well as the few moments of actual gambling. If you want that kind of thing done slickly go watch Lucky You. It isn’t any worse.
But the film spends far too long dealing with Stuey’s childhood, with his marriage, with the mob. But the film just isn’t well put together enough for me to care about those aspects of the story. So the climax of the film – the ‘97 World Series of Poker, teased heavily at the start – comes round, we barely see a hand until the final run out of the winning river.
For a movie about a poker player, there is actually not very much poker.
There were hints of a truly great poker biopic in there, but it was masked under steaming uneven piles, bizarre dialogue and acting, and a lack of focus.
Might be worth a watch for the hardcore poker fan, but you’re probably better off just watching a supercut of all the card table scenes or the actual coverage of the 1981, 1982 and 1997 WSOP.
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