Lots of thoroughbreds, but a stumbling start
Cast of ‘Luck’ gets its footing later in new HBO series
‘Luck’’ has a great title. It also has (in no particular order) a great setting, the world of thoroughbred racing; a great star, Dustin Hoffman; and a creator with a great track record, David Milch, co-creator of “NYPD Blue’’ and creator of “Deadwood.’’ Michael Mann, of “Heat’’ and “Collateral,’’ is along for the ride, too, as an executive producer and director of the first episode. The HBO series starts a nine-episode run Sunday night at 9.
Great elements don’t necessarily a great series make, though. Pretty good, yes; but great, no - or at least not great in that Sunday-night way HBO has led people to take for granted.
Hoffman plays Ace Bernstein, a mob guy who has just served three years in prison for cocaine possession. The drugs were not his. They belonged to a business “associate’’ (Michael Gambon). Ace took the rap for him - which is to say, he’s that much-beloved figure among scriptwriters, the noble gangster.
Ace has a noble sidekick, too. Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina) does triple duty as driver, bodyguard, and confidant. “I don’t trust anyone, not even myself,’’ Ace tells him. “You I give a pass.’’ A good line, it’s a better example (because tighter and tamer) of the sort of sub-Tarantino dialogue characters in “Luck’’ tend to rely on. They talk tough and colorful and profane (f-bombs proliferate like road apples), but minus that verbal torque of Tarantino’s. Without it, much of the gab seems slightly leaden and more than slightly phony.
Gus also serves as Ace’s frontman in owning a champion thoroughbred. As a convicted felon, Ace is forbidden any involvement in horse racing. Hoffman and Farina’s Jeff-and-Mutt routine is the spine of the series. Their relationship increasingly defies belief - they even share the same luxury apartment - but it is entertaining.
The relationship is not as implausible as that of the four racetrack habitues (Kevin Dunn, Jason Gedrick, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster) who buy a thoroughbred after winning a $2.6 million Pick Six bet. Their horse and Ace’s share the same trainer (John Ortiz), who’s in a stormy romantic relationship with the track veterinarian (Jill Hennessy). Women don’t fare well in “Luck.’’ Hennessy mainly stands around looking stone-faced. Kerry Condon brings an elfin charm to the role of an Irish exercise girl seeking to become a jockey, but too often she’s reduced to just acting with her brogue.
Horse racing is the sport of kings - Nick Nolte, playing a white-bearded trainer-owner is Ace’s monarchical counterpart - but it’s the sport of crumbs, too. That oddball gang of four are like refugees from a Damon Runyon story auditioning for supporting roles in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’’ Richard Kind, as an oppressively maladroit jockeys’ agent, is right up there, too
“Luck’’ isn’t essential viewing, but it has its rewards. The horses sure are beautiful to look at. They’re four-legged versions of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in Mann’s “Miami Vice.’’ That Southern California light is gorgeous, as is the sight of the San Gabriel Mountains overlooking Santa Anita Park (where the races take place).
You can’t help but marvel at the laryngitic gravel bank that Nolte’s voice has become. Farina’s geniality wears very well. It also helps compensate for the glum company of Hoffman’s tight, recessive performance. Ace may be a crook, but he’s a crook with the soul of an accountant. Maybe that’s why he loves the horses so much. They can gallop and get all lathered up, unimaginable acts for him.
It’s fun to watch some very good actors show up in unexpected places. Gambon has a high old time hamming things up as a Very Bad Guy. Joan Allen shyly provides Ace’s love interest. Bruce Davison helps Nolte get out of a legal jam. Playing the mother of one of the gang of four, the magnificent Mercedes Ruehl has a few minutes in the final episode and nearly walks away with it.
That episode is easily the series’ best. Conversely, this Sunday’s may be the weakest. It’s a bit draggy, having so many horses to get settled in the starting gate. It also has way too much attitude. The strangest thing about “Luck’’ is how all its sourness and snarl evolves into something suspiciously like crowd-pleasing sentiment. Almost all the endings are happy, and the ones that aren’t await resolution in a second season (assuming a go-ahead from the ratings god). Bad “Luck’’ and good, attitude and sentiment: It’s the storytelling equivalent of a daily double.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.