The title “Poker Face” suggests a droll, methodical cunning that unfortunately proves elusive everywhere else in Russell Crowe’s sophomore effort as writer-director. As handsomely produced as his first, 2014’s historical drama “The Water Diviner,” it offers an even more overstuffed narrative whose myriad elements barely have time to register before we arrive at a nearly 10-minute end credits crawl. This Australia-shot mix of intrigue, soap opera, thriller and tearjerker never quite gels, despite enough surface gloss and cast expertise to hold attention. Screen Media is releasing theatrically to a couple dozen U.S. screens this week and to digital formats on Nov. 22, with other territories following.
A prologue finds our protagonists as teenage besties in what looks like the late 1970s: five rural Aussie lads already obsessed with poker. After a swim in an idyllic quarry, they’re challenged to a game by a local bully, who naturally is enraged by his loss.
In the present day, Jake (Crowe) is now a tech billionaire, albeit with the weight of the world on his shoulders for reasons we don’t fully grasp until later. After a bizarre spiritual-retreat interlude with one “Shaman Bill” — which seems included solely to provide brief screentime to Down Under screen legend Jack Thompson — Jake calls on his old mates for a reunion of mysterious purpose.
While they’ve drifted apart over the years, they’ve done well: Alex (Aden Young) is a successful author, Paul (Steve Bastoni) a politician, late-arriving Drew (RZA) a high-flying entrepreneur. Only Mikey (Liam Hemsworth) seems to have floundered, though he can blame no one but himself. Ergo he’s most eager to seize the opportunity when Jake, once they’ve arrived at his ultra-modern compound outside Sydney, makes a proposition: Each of them can keep as a gift the luxe next-generation car they individually arrived in, or forfeit it in favor of being staked $5 million in a round of Texas Hold ‘Em. (Also present for that purpose are Daniel MacPherson as Jake’s lawyer, and Elsa Pataky as a card dealer whom the camera introduces cleavage-first.)
While it’s taken the movie some time to get there, at this point we assume its focus will be cat-and-mouse gamesmanship à la Pupi Avati’s 1986 ingenious “Christmas Present” (and its 2004 “Christmas Rematch” sequel), in which another quintet of swells sat down to a score-settling poker tournament whose reversals of fortune were sharply character-revealing.
But Crowe’s screenplay (which is credited as based on a story and preceding script by Stephen M. Coates) cannot stay focused long enough to fulfill that promise of a clever caper. We’ve already had a gratuitous car chase; now the card game itself passes in a flicker, overwhelmed by plot developments involving poison, one figure’s terminal cancer diagnoses, deep dark personal crises everyone else is hiding, and so forth.
These matters carry little weight because they don’t arise organically from the storytelling, but are simply crammed in. As if the narrative agenda weren’t already laden enough, three armed thieves (Paul Tassone, Matt Nable, Benedict Hardie) — including that teenage bully of yore, naturally — arrive, hoping to abscond with Jake’s valuable artworks. Then his wife (Brooke Satchwell) and daughter (Molly Grace) inconveniently also turn up, needing to confront him about some upsetting news.
Thus “Poker Face” careens from “Stand By Me”-type nostalgia to lifestyle fantasy and on through several other modes. When its violent-thriller section is over, we end on a maudlin note in which Jake basically pays tribute to his own magnanimity. Those very long closing credits include a power ballad co-written by the Crowe, who also contributes three other songs to the soundtrack. By that point, a film that had first raised expectations of a playful ensemble showcase has already identified itself as an elaborate vanity project.
As an actor, Crowe is in pleasingly understated form here, while as a filmmaker, he doesn’t want for ideas, able collaborators or professional sheen. But there are far too many elements in play for the result to seem anything but cluttered and superficial, satisfying neither as sleek escapism or as something from the heart. “The Water Diviner” similarly overreached, yet the expansiveness of its canvas made a surplus of melodramatic elements easier to accept.
“Poker Face” feels like a concept that began as a larky good time, then began groaning under the weight of too many tacked-on themes and devices until its structural foundation collapsed. While you’re struggling to keep the characters straight, you notice sloppy logic gaps, like the servants’ mysterious vanishing act, or the fact that the main peer-group figures don’t appear to inhabit the same age range at all. (Hemsworth is Crowe’s junior by a quarter-century.)
Not to mention the eventual shakiness of the entire premise that Jake would make his lifelong pals jump through a series of perversely complicated hoops in order to… prove he loves them? This good-looking, expensively appointed film ends in a teary puddle of life lessons learned. But they seem the sort that you’d have to be either a tech billionaire or an international movie star to find relatable.