Poker in the Mainstream: Early Reviews of "All In: The Poker Movie"

Poker News RSS / / 23 March 2012 / Leave a Comment

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"Rounders" star Matt Damon is one of over 100 interviewees appearing in "All In: The Poker Movie"

Mainstream reviews of a film about the “subculture” in which most of us have been so immersed are highly revealing, and ultimately might be read as not just evaluations of the film but of poker and its significance, generally speaking.

As noted earlier this week, the new documentary All In: The Poker Movie premieres today in select theaters around the United States. Numerous reviews of the film have by now appeared in the mainstream press, and while some are appreciating All In as an entertaining, revealing study of an American pastime, others are proving less patient with the movie's pro-poker message.

Directed by Douglas Tirola and produced by 4th Row Films, the movie compiles over 100 interviews with both professional and amateur players, industry types, authors, historians, and others to tell the complicated story of poker in America.

Begun well before "Black Friday," All In: The Poker Movie was in post-production last April when the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed its indictment and civil complaint targeting online poker's biggest sites and effectively shutting down the online game in the U.S. Added footage and what appears to have been a rethinking of the overall narrative made Black Friday a focal point of the finished film, as it begins in a somber mood discussing the day and its negative effect on many, then circles back to it at the end as a kind of epilogue.

In between comes a more upbeat overview of the history of poker in the U.S., carrying the viewer quickly through the 19th and 20th centuries to the "boom" of the last decade, with special attention given to Rounders, Chris Moneymaker's 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event victory, the rise of televised poker, and the sudden surge in growth of online poker. For more on what one finds in All In, see my article from earlier this week.

I had a chance to see an advance screener of the film and enjoyed it quite a bit. In my review for PokerListings, I noted how All In seemed to have a couple of agendas -- to tell poker's story, but also to defend the game.

I felt as though the movie did a great job presenting the story, especially the last decade, and also did well to connect poker to American culture, more broadly. As far as defending the game from its detractors went, I said I wasn't sure it would change the minds of those who oppose poker and/or gambling, but congratulated the film for a game effort. However, some other reviewers from outside of our little poker world have thus far been less generous regarding All In's attempt to defend poker and/or the online game.

In a review appearing today in The New York Times, Neil Genzlinger suggests the film should be retitled "All In: The Poker Propaganda Movie" and is cynical about how the film appears at times to define the "American dream" as "making a lot of money with minimal effort."

Ultimately, Genzlinger finds the film "so padded with cheerleading that it doesn't have time for a serious exploration of poker's place in the broader culture or the consequences of its rapid rise and global reach."

allinposter.pngIn a review of the film for Variety, John Anderson also expressed skepticism about the movie's occasional heavy-handedness with regard to the crackdown on online poker and suggestions that it could lead to further constraints on individual liberty. According to Anderson, the film wants to suggest "there's a slippery slope leading from the regulation of online gambling to godless tyranny and a full-blown totalitarian state."

Anderson does find certain aspects of the film at least engaging, although ultimately he, too, believes "Tirola allows his subjects to advocate a bit too strenuously" on behalf of poker and/or the online game. Like the Times reviewer, Anderson ultimately grows impatient with the way "virtually every interviewee waxes philosophic about the spirit of the game and the spirit of America."

Reviewing the film for Film Journal, Frank Lovece found it "engrossing" although also "a little too rhapsodic" about the game's centrality to American culture and the need to preserve it from legislative threats. "Despite its many intriguing qualities, a lack of dissenting voices removes the balance and fuller context," notes Lovece, who thus believes it tips "perilously close to being just a fancy-ass commercial against the regulation of [sic] online poker." (Lovece likely meant "prohibition of" or the like.)

Even so, Lovece nonetheless appreciates much about All In, finding the history it tells to have been "compelling" and ultimately summing up the movie as "a fascinating-enough look at a subculture, with extraordinary access to a wealth of the game's important voices."

Other reviewers have likewise used that word "compelling" to describe the movie, including John DeFore in his review for The Hollywood Reporter who particularly liked the telling of Moneymaker's story. DeFore also found "some intrigue in the explosions of poker websites and attempts by the U.S. government to limit online gambling."

Chuck Bowen of Slant Magazine complains about the film's organization -- it's "all over the place," he says -- but ultimately finds the movie "charming" enough to give it three of four stars, pronouncing it "an engagingly messy, affectionate ode to one of the most popular, gloriously far-fetched fashions of chasing the American Dream." (Review here.)

By contrast, Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out found the movie "structured dutifully... as a serious examination of a lifestyle," and while "it could have used a touch more disrepute" he still finds certain elements of the story "fascinating" in what is ultimately a lukewarm recommendation of a "mildly entertaining documentary." (Review here.)

Mainstream reviews of a film about the "subculture" in which most of us have been so immersed are highly revealing, and ultimately might be read as not just evaluations of the film but of poker and its significance, generally speaking.

While the film's limited theatrical release schedule suggests it won't be as dependent for revenue on box office as later video-on-demand and DVD sales, it will be interesting to keep an eye on the ongoing reception of All In: The Poker Movie, not just as a measure of the documentary's success or failure but also as an indicator of poker's relative status in a post-Black Friday world.

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