"High Roller"

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005, 1:52 pm

Thanks to all those who commented and emailed with computer suggestions. Seems like folks have had good results with Toshibas, which is good to know because I’ve been checking out one of their models that seems to fit my particular bill. I may pay a visit to Best Buy in the next few days to rattle the keys a bit and see what I like, but I’ll wait to see if and when they run a nice sale so I can save a few more bucks.

I did get my computer to sort-of work last night. Well, it worked, but whatever it is that ails me is affecting Internet Explorer. I can’t use IE to surf, but an old copy of Netscape Navigator DID work. I may try running some extra anti-spyware stuff tonight (thanks SG) to see if that helps a bit.

While fiddling with my computer I watched the movie “High Roller” , which is based on the life of Stu Unger. Pauly wrote about it a few days ago, and he didn’t like it at all. Nor did a filmmaker friend of mine (Matt Bookman, where are you?) who hated it so much he wanted to write his own screenplay and make a movie himself. I didn’t think it was HORRIBLE, but it certainly wasn’t good. Especially with a remarkable and tragic figure like Ungar to deal with.

Right off the bat we have a problem, because Michael Imperioli looks nothing like Stu Ungar. Hard to blame Imperioli for that, because NO ONE looked like Ungar. I remember watching the ESPN show of the 1997 WSOP, and I looked at Stuey and tried to think of who he looked like. When it hit me, I so offended myself that I shoved the image out of my head. It wasn’t until I read A. Alvarez’s classic “The Biggest Game in Town” and poker legend Jack Strauss’ statement that Ungar “looked like Vera from “Planet of the Apes” that I learned I wasn’t the only person to think along those lines. Alvarez described Ungar as a “stick-insect” who wore heavy bracelets that seemed to pin his spindly arms to the table. In the film Ungar is described as a “kid” and a little guy, but Imperioli doesn’t look especially young or especially slight. There’s one scene in a restaurant where the waiter wants to see ID before he’ll serve Ungar a bottle of wine, because he inconcievably thinks the midthirtysomething-looking Imperioli is under 18. It’s ludicrous. Again, not Imperioli’s fault, but still it stuck out.

There is only one person I can think of who could play Ungar and look anything like him, and he’s a bit busy right now. His name is Michael Jackson.

The film is told in flashback thanks to a too-cute artistic framework that so blatantly telegraphs its final punchline that the one characters should’ve just been wearing wings with a halo hovering over his head (or horns and a pitchfork, if you wanted the slightest bit of suspense). We see the child Stuey fleecing grownups who think some shrimpy kid can’t beat them at gin, and we see the grownup Stuey blowing tons of money on the horses, hookers and coke. He wins 2 consecutive World Series and loses his wife and daughter. Ups and downs, ebb and flow.

The thing is, Ungar deserves a bigger canvas than this. The word “genius” is badly overused in our culture, but I think it certainly applies in Ungar’s case. He was one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, no-limit poker players of all time. And there doesn’t seem to be much argument that he was, far and away, the best gin player of all time. He lived a life in large part disconnected from the real world, never holding a real job, never having a checking account (the film has a funny scene where Ungar signs for his mortgage at the poker table, and when the banker asks about the down payment Stuey shoves over two big bundles of bills while calling down his opponent’s final bet).

But mated to that genius was a staggering capacity for self-destruction. He was an action junkie, the antenna that allowed him to see into men’s souls at the poker table craved constant stimulation. He wasn’t a degenerate gambler, he was THE degenerate gambler. He was a character of almost Shakespearean dimension, and this film is too small to convey the scope of his power or the pathos of his end. I’ll be keen to read Nolan Dalla’s biography of Ungar when it comes out, it should be a fascinating book.

A few final observations. Vince Van Patten appears in the movie (credited as VINCENT Van Patten). Now, I know Vince is (was) an actor, and since he’s been around the poker scene it seems natural he’d appear in a movie like this. But seeing him ACT after his time on the WPT broadcast team was weird. Just as it was weird seeing Mike Sexton playing poker last week instead of just talking about it. Odd how rigidly we pigeonhole people into their accepted (and, to our mind, acceptable) roles and cluck nervously when they try to do something else. This doesn’t just apply to celebrities, but it is hard to break out of the public’s ingrained expectations. For example, my favorite musician is Elvis Costello, who recently wrote the score to a ballet based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. From what some critics wrote about it, you might’ve thought EC had decided to spend the rest of his career scoring snuff films.

What was I talking about? Oh, Vince. Anyway, there’s a scene in the film where Vince says (children, shut your eyes) “fucking”. Hearing that word coming from Vince Van Patton shocked me to the core. A curse word? Out of the voice of the WPT? If I ever heard Mike Sexton swear, my stars, I think I might just faint. It was almost beyond comprehension. It would be like, when you were a little kid out riding your bike, and you came in at noon to eat lunch, and instead of preparing peanut-butter sandwiches you found your mother pistol-whipping a Columbian while shouting, “Where’s my fucking coke, Jorge? WHERE’S MY FUCKING COKE?”. It was that kind of shock.

Mid-1980’s Playboy centerfold Cynthia Brimhall played a prostitute in the film. Sad, isn’t it, that if you’re a former Playmate in your thirties and you want to keep acting, you basically have two roles to choose from:

1. Hooker/Stripper
2. Detective assigned to the Erotic Murder division

The latter role I’ve seen featured in just about every Showtime late at night movie. Hot girl gets murdered, hot detective investigates, guy who killed hot girl seduces then tries to kill hot detective. It’s become part of American mythology.

The music in the film was a bit strange, which may be explained by the fact that it was arranged by Starr Parodi, who was the keyboard player in Arsenio Hall’s band when he had his talk show. It occurs to me that my younger readers may have no idea who Arsenio Hall is, which I guess is just as well.

The strangest musical decision came at the very end of the movie. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that Stuey dies in a hotel room, and he (or his spirit) walks out of the door into the brilliant sunshine, I guess signifying some sort of Eternal Rest. Sadly, this is the happy Hollywood ending at its most insipid, because we have no idea whether Ungar, in his last moments, enjoyed anything approaching a state of grace. One can only hope. But as Imperioli walks out into the light, you hear the raised voices of a heavenly choir singing some soaring hymn. Which is a bit odd, as Ungar was Jewish. Now, while I can appreciate the intention of this music, it’s so weird I actually had to rewind the movie to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. It’s bizarre. It’d be like, at the end of “You’ve Got Mail”, when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are kissing in Central Park, the movie ends with a rousing rendition of “Hava Nagila”. Again, I could easily appreciate the sentiment, but it’d be really weird.

The other weird thing I noticed, and maybe I didn’t really notice it, came at the very end of the movie. We see Stuey win the 1997 WSOP, with Imperioli perfectly mimicing Ungar’s clap and arm-extension when the final card was turned. The camera pans around the crowd, we’re treated to the bittersweet sight of the late Andy Glazer calling the action, and as the camera moved across the cheering crowd one smiling face caught my attention, a woman with lots of blonde hair. I rewound, looked at her again. Where had I seen her before? And then it hit me–during last year’s WPT event in Aruba, there was a guy who said he’d marry his sweetheart if he won the thing? And so we were treated to about 700 shots of her standing there cheering her guy on (as well of a few shots of her playing volleyball whilst wearing an overloaded bikini). Well, I’m pretty sure she was in the final crowd shot at the end of the movie. Swear to God, the Department of Homeland Security should hire me to scan crowds for the faces of terrorists/illegal aliens/Democrats. I have a gift.

So, in conclusion, let me damn this movie with this piece of faint praise–it wasn’t terrible. Just disappointing. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more poker-based movies out, “Tilt” notwithstanding. I guess everyone’s busy playing the game instead of writing screenplays about it. Hmm…I sense a niche for myself…

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