Luck’s Fortunes: How can Dustin Hoffman’s Ace Rothstein help the down-and-out?

Dustin Hoffman talks to Joan Allen. ()
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Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ace Rothstein, hosts two meals in his penthouse during the fourth episode of HBO’s "Luck." Both of those talks turn on the question of how (or whether) to lend a hand to those more unfortunate.

Feasting on duck with the hot-shot derivatives whiz from his investment firm, a kid named Nathan Israel (who you might remember is auditioning for a million-dollar-a-year gig), the conversation turns to adjustable-rate home mortgages. Israel almost moans with self-satisfaction as he recounts a radio story he heard, featuring a pitiful couple now underwater on their loan. They took “a sucker mortgage,” the kid declares between forkfuls. What’d they expect?

“That’s an asshole, eighth-grade observation,” Ace says, before asking about the rest of Nathan’s day. The kid realizes he’s embarrassed himself somehow, and clams up. (Did he misjudge his audience? Isn’t Ace a capitalist?) But Ace tells him he’s got the job anyway—if only because the person Ace wants him to meet, arch-enemy crime boss Mike, is the same kind of pitiless monster. (More on that to come.)

Earlier in the day, though, we see signs of Ace tiring of Nathan's robber-baronish failure of empathy. When meeting with Joan Allen’s character, prisoner advocate Claire Lachay, Ace finds himself ready to bankroll her entire convicts-training-horses project, if need be. It’s a generous act, likely to cost over $200,000.

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While reviewing the day with The Greek, at episode’s end, Ace directs his audience (including us) not to think of his gift as a simple prelude to potential sexual conquest. Ace tells us that’s not what’s on his mind, exactly.

“If I can help the woman, that’s what I want to do,” he says, as though that covers it. Still, as the sound of Ray Charles takes us to the end-credits, Ace admits: “I’ve been confused about my behavior for some time now, I’ll tell you that.”

He’s not the only one. Jerry, the most degenerate member of the Four Degenerate Gamblers crew we’ve been following, takes his poker fixation to terrifying (and dangerous) new depths by following his arch-enemy Chan back to a private cash game at the latter’s restaurant.

It's worth spending a moment on what makes Chan work on Luck, at a moment when a current character on the show "2 Broke Girls" comes off as a crude caricature and "Linsanity" has brought out all the old clickés again.

Sure, there are ways in which Chan is a stereotype (the Chinese character has a Chinese restaurant? You don't say!) But crucially, Chan’s got agency, and as much cleverness as any other operator on the show, despite (or even because of) the particularity of his profession, vocabulary and grammar. Chan has his own dedicated poetic lines from series creator and script-supervisor David Milch, and, as with any other character on the show, it’s those bits of particular language that drive each scene the character is in. If it feels real, not fake, it works.

Chan is able to wind Jerry up, and prompt him to test his luck, by predicting that the other gambler is about “to show me your ass,” which is a weird-but-convincing bit of jargon for “embarrass yourself” (or just “to lose”). Jerry wants to prove him wrong—and yet, when playing against the instincts a careful gambler would observe with those same cards, he usually loses to Chan. This gives Chan the opportunity to berate Jerry with some faux-friendly advice, which comes off as not-quite-good-natured needling. When Chan tells Jerry that he shouldn’t bet for his “baby reasons,” regardless of what his cards are telling him, of course he’s just setting Jerry up to prove him wrong again—to bet against conservative instincts the next time.

It’s clear that Jerry will, at last, need some assistance in order to get out of the psychological trap at Chan’s restaurant. And in an episode where every arc is about negotiating a path to help other people, it’s up to his fellow degenerate gamblers at the track to contrive the basis for Jerry’s rescue.

Marcus, as the brains of the outfit, is moved from his standard-issue complaining about Jerry’s absence from the track, but only after the entire stadium watches with near-religious awe as Nick Nolte’s young horse comes from 10 lengths back to win a jaw-dropping race. It’s not even clear to us whether Marcus has any money riding on the horse—it’s the pure perfection of its running that’s brought him close to tears, and also made him decide that Jerry needs to be actively saved from his own poker playing.

(In a fine comedic setup, Marcus realizes that Jerry can be roused from the poker table if the other degenerates bring a story of Marcus’ own failing health … just as Marcus realizes he can’t quite draw enough oxygen from his tank to explain the strategy to his duller compatriots.)

Back at the hotel, a shaggy-haired and sad-looking Jerry thanks the crew for extracting him from Chan’s restaurant. Renzo even suggests re-splitting their Pick 6 fortune to cover Jerry’s losses, but Marcus observes that what’s broken about Jerry’s behavior can’t be fixed with money.

Another righting of wrongs that has very little to do with the financial bottom line occurs, for Nolte’s character, during the inaugural race of his young horse, Getting’up Morning. When Rosie the ex-exercise girl comes back to the track, fresh from Portland Meadows, she startles Nolte’s Walter Smith with her enthusiasm. It suggests that the race won’t be about present-day excitement for the old trainer, but rather a dialogue with past woes. Later, while warming up the horse on the track, Rosie gives a thumbs-up to Walter, who yells back, “Both hands on the wheel, girl!” (This, even though he agrees with her judgment that the horse looks like it's running well before the race.) He can’t get too caught up in any moment today; there’s too much history riding on the race for anything to be left to chance.

When Rosie can’t calm down the horse sufficiently to get it out of the gate cleanly, Walter looks broken. (Rosie, for her part, issues a choice profanity in her first professional race.) But as the horse begins its improbable comeback, Walter, watching from the stands, starts shedding real pounds in sweat and tears, which trickle down his beard. More than anything, he hopes this race will mean something, somehow, to the horse’s late father, Delphi (killed for the insurance money by Walter’s former employers).

Whenever money can’t work to change the fates of the characters, it’s up to hopefulness to intervene. As Getting’up Morning sprints to the finish, we see a Milchian cross-section of jockeys struggling with their burdens: the Cajun rider known as “Bug” trying to reverse his weight gain on a punishing running trail, and also the pill-and-booze addicted Ronnie stumbling toward the beach, paper bag in hand. One of the best filmmaking moments on the show yet comes when the thump of the race is removed from the soundtrack—we know by now that Getting’up Morning will win the race —and a string arrangement is allowed to score the rest of the victory, amidst some cross-cutting between the show’s losers.

The one arc that sticks out here is the long-promised introduction of Ace’s arch-enemy Mike. The character feels like the uneasiest collaboration we’ve seen between Milch’s writing style and Michael Mann’s visual palette. Wondering aloud about Ace’s potential capacity for revenge against him (and the cocaine-setup that sent Ace to prison in the first place), he waxes eloquent about “the Son of Man in Gethsemane” who was “tempted to anger” before observing that Hoffman’s character “might be pissed off.”

It’s a fine riff, but the staging here is not quite right for the text. On his manhood-enhancing luxury boat, Mike seems like a refugee from Mann’s "Miami Vice." That feeling intensifies when Mike invites Ace to sleep with two hookers in his employ. The luxe-louche armchair philosopher doesn't really come together in the brief screen time the actor is given to make it work—and doesn’t promise great things for Mike’s development in future episodes. (Weekly reminder: critics received all nine episodes of Luck in early Janaury.) Right now, that part of the plot is the thing that needs the most help on "Luck."

Also, it’ll be good to see Ace get to the track again—the place where his own behavior becomes least mysterious.

Seth Colter Walls will be writing about "Luck" every Monday.

Previously: Luck's fortunes: Keep your hand open.