High Roller: The Stu Ungar (2003) is a film about Stu Ungar or Stuart Errol “Stu” Ungar. In his time, he was the greatest gin rummy and Hold’Em player, and the movie is basically about how he lived before his death.
The star of the film is Michael Imperioli, and the script relied heavily on flashback to tell Stu’s story, while the character himself is relaying his life story to a man he had never met before in a hotel setting on the same night that he died.
The film is full of dramatic irony – we know how it ends, and that the character’s life was cut short on the very night in 1998. The tactic helps to connect a lot about his life effectively. By the time the story comes to an end, you know Stu’s life inside out. You get the sense that he was skilled enough to score in any game he played and also that were it not for his addiction to gambling as well as his many side bets at tables, he would have had the chance to live a lush life if he ever wanted one.
And most importantly of all, you are left with the sense that he was truly addicted – someone with the predisposition to always want to be right, all the time, everywhere. That said, the film has some big misses.
Critical narratives get lost in films. These narratives necessitate a give and take type of relationship between fiction and facts whenever a film is made off literature. Sadly, the creative liberties extended to this film don’t do it any justice. Such a pity! As a viewer, there’s a lot that you have to assume.
You have to have known Stu before watching this movie. The grim reaper, the individual he speaks to in the film, might have been a great ideal if it was clear that his life would terminate at the end. However, it was not that obvious, and it would take your right to the closing credits to figure out that he died in the end.
There’s also a sudden free fall as the film ends. You have the premonition that he was, in one way or another, staked in poker and that he owed a lot of money. That much is clear from the henchman who runs right to the front of the gathered crowd when he finds out that Stu won. What is not stated in black and white is that Stu resumes his old ways after he cleared what he owed.
Well, he did go broke and was killed by the cocaine and alcohol constantly abused, again, this is not clear in the film, until the closing credits. Talk about a huge problem! No one, unintentional or not, should be kept in the dark at the closing credits. There was an obvious clear ending here, but for one reason or another, someone thought it smart to mess it up. One of a Kind offers a much more in-depth description of Stu’s life, and you are guaranteed that it makes sense. No gaps, just the right kind of flow.