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"LUCKY NUMBERS"
(2000) (John Travolta, Lisa Kudrow) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A TV weatherman and the state lotto ball girl conspire to rig the lottery drawing and then pick the winning numbers, only to find their plan complicated by an assortment of dimwitted or otherwise ruthless people who want a cut of the action.
PLOT:
It's 1988 and things aren't going well for Harrisburg, PA TV weatherman Russ Richards (JOHN TRAVOLTA). Although he's a local celebrity, has a permanently reserved table at one of the diners and dreams of becoming a TV game show host, he's facing a foreclosure on his home. It seems that he's overextended himself by opening a snowmobile dealership only to discover -- along with Larry (MICHAEL WESTON), his faithful employee - that the uncommonly mild winter has resulted in zero sales.

After station manager Dick Simmons (ED O'NEILL) refuses to give Russ a raise or loan him any money, the desperate weatherman turns to Gig (TIM ROTH), a local strip club owner who knows a thing or too about raising money in less than scrupulous ways. When their concocted insurance scam is busted, however, not only does that not help Russ' situation, but it also puts him on bad terms with Dale "The Thug" Wagstaff (MICHAEL RAPAPORT), the hit man Gig repeatedly turns to for such criminal activity.

As such, Gig then gives Russ his latest advice on how to make money. Since the state lotto drawing is held in the very TV station where Russ works, and he's casually sleeping with Crystal Latroy (LISA KUDROW), the on air lotto girl who draws the lucky numbers, Gig suggests they rig the lotto and take home the winnings.

Soon, Crystal is on the scam and has employed her asthmatic cousin, Walter (MICHAEL MOORE), to play the fixed numbers, cash in the winning $6.4 million ticket, and split the money. While they get away with the drawing, things quickly spiral out of control as loose lips and greed soon have more people involved, such as local bookie Jerry Green (RICHARD SCHIFF), as well as less than enthusiastic police Lt. Pat Lakewood (BILL PULLMAN) and his partner, Chambers (DARYL MITCHELL).

With their plan progressively becoming more complicated and the various involved parties jockeying to get a cut of the action, Russ and Crystal try to figure out how to regain control of the situation and the money, all without being exposed or going to jail.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
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.




Reviewed October 24, 2000 / Posted October 27, 2000


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