Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Blazing Saddles: Tom Carson on Luck

With none other than Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte heading the cast—and both doing some of their canniest work ever—the acting's the top reason to check out Luck, HBO's latest contender for Major American TV Drama. But the best reason to stick with it is that David (Deadwood) Milch and Michael (Miami Vice) Mann's bid to turn playing the horses into a pressure-cooker version of life in these United States just keeps getting more engrossing, even for viewers who don't know a trifecta from a daily double.

Hoffman is Chester "Ace" Bernstein, a wily moneybags who's just out after three years in the pen and wants a piece of California's Santa Anita racetrack. That dapper rock Dennis Farina plays his longtime chauffeur and live-in confidant, a relationship as vital to both of these tough cookies as J. Edgar Hoover's bromance with Clyde Tolson. But Ace's maneuvers are only one squiggle in a Jackson Pollock canvas of jockeys, trainers, agents, gamblers, and hangers-on all living for the adrenaline rush of post time. Though Nolte, as an old-school owner, obviously jumps right out—and so does Richard Kind as a stammering jockeys' rep—keep your eyes peeled for the quartet of funkily inspired performers (Kevin Dunn, token pretty boy Jason Gedrick, manic Ritchie Coster, and beatific Ian Hart) playing clubhouse pond scum turned neophyte horse owners after a big Pick 6 score. Half comic relief and half Greek chorus, they could be the funniest bunch of monomaniacs since The X-Files introduced the Lone Gunmen.

In a satisfyingly democratic way, what gives even these skeevy dudes equal rights with millionaires in Luck's milieu is a shared passion—if not addiction, or maybe religion—that trumps family attachments and everything else. The races themselves are shot and scored in a hyperbolic style totally unlike the rest of the show's unromantic tone, dramatizing their charged meaning to aficionados. Not just high-stakes contests, they're also the only transfiguring experiences this otherwise cynical world has to offer. Even Ace succumbs when he acquires a Mister Ed of his own: His look of quizzical wonder in the stalls tells you he's forming the first unguarded bond of his gnarly life. The ultra-American beauty of Luck is that pretty much everyone in sight is mercenary and calculating—and yet, whether they know it or not, they're in it for the poetry.

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