The fact that Poker Face is directed, written, and starring Crowe (based on a script by Stephen M. Coates) should suggest that the actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-director has control over most of what ends up on the screen. However, as the movie progresses, it feels like either the script went through many hands or Crowe has no idea whatsoever of what he’s doing. The story centers around Jake Foley (Crowe), a tech billionaire that decides to gather his oldest friends for a high-stakes poker game in which the winner takes home millions of dollars. However, the poker game is interrupted when secrets resurface, revenge plots are unfolded, and thieves break into Jake’s house.
Just by looking at the movie’s synopsis, you can get a sense of what’s wrong with it. Is it a drama centered on poker games? Is it a revenge movie? Or maybe a home invasion thriller? Of course, it could be all of that and even be a genre-bending ride, but the problem is that Crowe does only the bare minimum to connect the themes that his screenplay proposes. And there are a lot of them.
First, in order to set up the story’s core of friendships, it follows the main characters as kids and introduces two elements for conflict and drama that are never revisited: The health of Michael’s (Liam Hemsworth) mother and his fear of heights. The scene also fails to establish how poker united them—they just kind of play it. At the same time, the movie expects us to buy that they formed such a strong connection through the card game that a poker night invitation is enough to summon all of them after they clearly drifted apart.
Jake, on the other hand, barely gets an introduction in the flashback. Later on, he goes through a philosophical journey filled with motivational quotes. The story rushes through his emotional state just to present a plot device that you can easily tell will serve as a deus ex machina at some point. By the time the movie really kicks off, you notice that a third of it has gone by and yet you formed no connection with the characters whatsoever.
But that’s fine, because who needs character development when you’ve got wheels? In one of Poker Face’s most absurd moments, most of the main cast spends some time having a car chase that amounts to (you guessed it) nothing. The scene is just as absurd as what comes next: Fully aware that one of his best friends has a gambling addiction, Jake invites him to…gamble. They start a poker game in which he could win or lose 5 million dollars. And remember, this is a story that expects you to believe Jake has his friends’ best interests in mind.
It’s also pretty frustrating that Poker Face offers virtually no build-up to its poker game scene, which is arguably its most important part. You know that each player obviously wants the prize money, but you certainly won’t know what goes on in their individual storylines. So, you end up rooting for none of them, and the rushed game, much like the rest of the movie, offers no thrills.
The last thing the movie has to offer is the home invasion segment, which is up to par with the rest of the film. The movie establishes that the house has cameras everywhere—except at the entrance, it seems. In an attempt to tie the story in with the first flashback, an old rival is presented as the invader, but all the movie did previously to establish him as a villain was…showing him stealing lunch money. As the burglary progresses, it becomes clear that neither criminals nor the screenwriter thought their plan through: They don’t know what they’re after, ignore clear signs that the plan could go wrong, and have no plan B or even escape plan. But that doesn’t matter, because Poker Face only uses its villains to build some artificial tension and wrap the story up with a twist you can see coming miles and miles away.
This brings us back to the final scene. We all know that voice-over narration makes everything seem more meaningful, but Poker Face forgets that, in order to create an emotional ending, you have to work towards it. We see zero scenes of the main cast bonding. When they have their defining poker game, it’s hard to figure out if they love or hate each other. Jake’s relationship with his daughter is superficial at best, and based on what we see in the movie, he’d rather do anything else than spend time with her. And yet, the protagonist is celebrated as someone who’s had a huge impact on the lives of everyone involved. He probably did, as the final scene wants to imply, but you won’t know what impact that was by watching this movie.
Poker Face constantly tries to raise the bet and bring new elements to the table, but you quickly realize it’s all a bluff. It doesn’t know how to build tension and anticipation and does no effort to work on its characters. It also doesn’t know how to convey a thrilling poker game, and after stumbling through completely disposable plot points, it tries to wrap its story up with life lessons that are as generic as the movie itself.
Poker Face is in theaters now and comes to VOD on November 22.