At the poker table, Huck Cheever is the Jack of Diamonds. On the love train, he's the Joker.

Huck's cardsharp brain trips him up with women because nobody loves a bluffer. Like many a poker stud before him, Huck personifies the saying, "Lucky at cards, unlucky in love."

When first we meet the compulsive gambler, fixture of the Vegas poker table and pawnshop, Huck (Eric Bana) is squeezing one last dollar out of a transaction with a poker-faced pawnbroker (Phyllis Somerville).

It's a lively sequence, a war of wits between a master salesman and a woman who's not buying, but enjoys the spiel. From this opening high, Lucky You takes an abrupt nosedive.

Lucky You follows Huck from pawnshop to the World Series of Poker, in between stopping briefly for him to learn the meaning of commitment and to resolve his conflict with his poker-champ father.

A wise man (quoted in James McManus' account Positively Fifth Street) described Poker's World Series as "Four days of intense boredom interrupted by a brief moment of sheer terror." Substitute "two hours and 15 minutes" for "four days," and you have Lucky You.

On what planet is poker a game making for film excitement? (What is exciting: A brief appearance by Robert Downey Jr. as a hustler of telephone advice, simultaneously juggling five 800-number calls.)

For the film's first half, it seems entirely possible that the chemistry between Bana and co-star Drew Barrymore (as Billie, a lounge singer) will propel us through the interminable card games.

The strapping Australian actor has a distinctive Cupid mouth, and the diminutive American actress has a fetching cherub pout. Hollywood's-most-kissable pusses seem fated for liplock. But for director (and co-writer) Curtis Hanson, the Ace of Hearts isn't high.

I watched this movie thinking that it used the idea of taking a chance on cards as a metaphor for taking a chance on love. I was dead wrong.

For all of Billie's speeches about how giving and receiving are more important than winning and losing, Hanson's film (co-written by Forrest Gump's Eric Roth) is not about the grip of love.

It's about the addiction of Texas Hold 'Em. Its best scenes show the extremes to which a gambler will go to get a place at the table. I have a feeling that that was the movie Hanson set out to make, but on the way, he thought it would be more marketable if he packaged it as a love story.

Best known for L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile, Hanson is an accomplished filmmaker. But you wouldn't know it from this unfocused movie that shows us cardsharps of an unusually dull variety.

Lucky You ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Curtis Hanson, written by Eric Roth and Curtis Hanson, photography by Peter Deming, music by Christopher Young, distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins.

Huck Cheever. . . Eric Bana

Billie Offer. . . Drew Barrymore

L.C. Cheever. . . Robert Duvall

Suzanne Offer. . . Debra Messing

Telephone Jack. . . Robert Downey Jr.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, sexual references)

Playing at: area theatersEndText