When one mentions the cinema and black humor, many are likely to assume that the conversation is regarding African-American performers such as Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, or Martin Lawrence, as well as their films that generate some or much of their humor from black-related comedy. While that's a fine subject to discuss, it really has nothing to do with this week's release of "Lucky Numbers," although Spike Lee would probably like to complain that there isn't enough black talent in front of or behind the camera in regards to this film.
That said, the black humor that I'm referring to is the one that's defined as "The juxtaposition, as in writing or drama, of morbid or absurd elements with comical or farcical ones, especially so as to produce a shocking or disturbing effect." It's the type of comedy that worked in films such as "Heathers" and "Ruthless People," but failed miserably in "Very Bad Things."
That's because that sort of humor constantly runs along the fine line of either being funny in a risqué and/or outrageous way, or attempting to be funny but ending up being repulsive to the point that all humor is lost. Much of that depends on the way in which the involved characters are portrayed. If they're seen as nitwits or are so bad in a comic book sense that we want to see them fail, then we can laugh at or with them.
On the other hand, if they're just mean, despicable or repulsive people, it's far less likely we'll find their behavior, attitudes and language as humorous. That, when coupled with graphically morbid material (blood and guts, etc.), usually equals a quick turn off for most viewers, and that's why a film like "Very Bad Things" failed, whereas "Ruthless People" succeeded.
"Lucky Numbers," the latest effort from director Nora Ephron ("You've Got Mail," "Sleepless in Seattle") wants to be more of the viewer friendly type of black comedy, and as such, there are no copious amounts of graphic or bloody violence. Nonetheless, some may be surprised at the language, casual sex and general amoral behavior the characters exude and might then have a hard time finding the film as funny as it thinks it is.
Most of the elements, however, are in place for some wicked humor. There's the initial illegal plan that kick starts the story and then draws in the usual bunch of greedy, backstabbing characters who slowly infiltrate the proceedings until there's a large number of them with interrelated but conflicting goals and desires. Many of them are also properly dimwitted, thus giving the audience a feeling of superiority over them.
Notwithstanding Ephron's desire not to go so far as to repulse her audience (and she is stepping out quite a bit from her normal sort of material), however, the film doesn't go far enough in concept or execution to make this a classic of the genre. While there are a few decent laughs to be had here and there, the film's a bit too listless when it should have been more hyperactive and too dull when it should have been razor-sharp. The result is a film that comes off as something akin to "Ruthless People Lite."
Screenwriter and Harrisburg native Adam Resnick (the director and co-writer of "Cabin Boy") loosely based his story on a real-life lottery scandal from the early '80s. Such a plot obviously has lots of potential as an initially small plan quickly begins to spiral out of control when too many people get involved and send it reeling in directions no one had expected.
Yet, the film never quite clicks or gets out of second gear, and thus comes off feeling like it's spinning its wheels too much and too often. Some of that could be the result that the central characters played by John Travolta ("Battlefield Earth," "The General's Daughter") and Lisa Kudrow ("Hanging Up," TV's "Friends") aren't interesting or developed enough for us to care one way or the other whether they succeed or fail in their effort.
It certainly doesn't help that they're not particularly likable, and while the performers occasionally overact to drive home the points of any given scene, they just don't work that well, although Kudrow fares better than Travolta. His is the sort of character that has to be written perfectly and played with just the right finesse to pull it off. Unfortunately, neither occurs here.
The supporting characters and the performers who inhabit them pretty much fall into the same boat. While not horrible, they don't really add enough to the proceedings to offset the film's flaws. While Tim Roth ("The Legend of 1900," "Pulp Fiction") and Ed O'Neill ("The Bone Collector," "Dutch") competently deliver their lines and hit their marks, there's nothing particularly inspired, funny or wicked enough about their characters.
Michael Rapaport ("Bedazzled," "Beautiful Girls") and Bill Pullman ("Lake Placid," "Independence Day") get more flamboyant roles, but deliver mixed results. Besides Kudrow's, Rapaport's hit man character is the only other one with any real bite for a black comedy, and most of the time he delivers the goods. Pullman, on the other hand, seems to be playing a dimwitted cousin to the one he played in "Ruthless People," and while he and his character occasionally connect on some comedic notes, neither are taken as far and to the extreme that they should have.
Meanwhile, Daryl Mitchell ("Galaxy Quest," "10 Things I Hate About You") is reduced to shooting incredulous looks at Pullman's laziness, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore ("Roger & Me") doesn't add anything as an asthmatic sex pervert, and Michael Weston ("Coyote Ugly," "Getting to Know You") comes up empty-handed as a white bread character I kept expecting to spring a big surprise on everyone.
Unfortunately, that never happens for him or for the rest of the film for that matter. As with Ephron's other pictures, a lot of work was seemingly put forth to assemble a decent soundtrack, and here the large collection of period songs are used to fill in the film's dead spots and aurally force feed any given scene's aura and emotions.
The end result is a film that's certainly easy enough to watch - if just for the great cast and the potential (albeit unfulfilled) that something wickedly humorous would unfold. Yet, the fact that there isn't enough clever double-crossing or revelations, inspired humor or characters that we like or at least want to like results in a black comedy that's simply not black enough. "Lucky Numbers" rates as a 5 out of 10.