Poker prodigy Stu “The Kid” Ungar won Las Vegas’ World Series of Poker championship three times before a lifetime of drugs and other addictions killed him in 1998 at the age of 45. Unfortunately, writer-director A.W. Vidmer’s “Stuey” is as paint-by-numbers as biopics get. Though the presence of “Sopranos” star Michael Imperioli in the title role will draw attention from both fests and distribs, “Stuey” has about as much chance to see more than cable and video exhibition as a weekend gambler has of getting dealt a royal flush.
Employing a framing device strongly reminiscent of Danny DeVito’s “Hoffa,” “Stuey” opens and closes with Ungar (Imperioli) in a fleabag motel room in Vegas, recounting his life story to a mysterious figure.
Pic flashes back to New York City in the early 1960s, where young Stu (Jonathan Press) shows an aptitude for cards, much to the simultaneous delight and chagrin of his bookie father (fine character actor Todd Susman). Though underage, Stu is taken under the wing of a wealthy, if shady, “benefactor” (Michael Nouri) who invites Stu to play cards for him, using his money in exchange for a cut of the winnings. It is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Steeped in Scorseseisms — the eccentric supporting characters, the nonstop period music — these coming-of-age scenes play out in a predictable fashion; they’re like the early scenes from “Goodfellas” (right down to the framing of certain shots), only with a fraction of the energy. There’s even a beautiful, Lorraine Braccoesque young woman (Renee Faia), a love interest for Stu naive enough to be used and abused by him.
If “Goodfellas” is the primary aesthetic reference for the first part of the film, “Casino” takes over in the second, as Ungar arrives in a 1970s, pre-Disneyfied Las Vegas (still really Sin City). It’s here that Ungar achieves both his greatest success — the youngest player ever to win the World Series of Poker — and also his deepest failure, becoming an unrepentant junkie, blowing his considerable winnings and watching his own family come apart at the seams.
It all fits nicely into a predetermined dramatic arc, like a movie-of-the-week that pauses at just the right moments for a commercial break. And as director, Vidmer does nothing to bring the viewer closer in to the characters.
But Imperioli is such an instinctive, forceful performer that he gives the movie a lift. He’s been typecast here — the character of Ungar is very much in the Imperioli’s established range, and his speech patterns have familiar-sounding “Sopranos” inflections. Yet, there’s something inherently likable about the actor, and he has a special knack for playing characters who unwittingly get in over their heads.
Imperioli is surrounded by strong character actors: Nouri, who has a wonderfully sinister way of saying “Do you get my emphasis?,” and Pat Morita as a poker-faced casino bigwig whose eerie calm might make Mr. Miyagi shudder.
Tech aspects are average on a modest budget, though the substitution of Vegas and Nashville locations for actual NYC locales cheapens the Brooklyn-set scenes.