[Written for Film.com]
The critical reaction to Sally Field’s directing debut, Beautiful, was interesting. That film — admittedly a mess — presented a self-centered, vain, cutthroat main character, a beauty contestant played by Minnie Driver. The response to the movie showed virtually no recognition that such a character might be presented as a source of satire, or be set up for eventual redemption (which, of course, she was). Instead, critics and audiences alike seemed outraged that anyone would presume to place such a lowlife at the center of a film. (We have come a long way from the anti-heroes of the 1970s, folks.)
This is chilling news for the makers of Lucky Numbers, a nasty, regularly amusing black comedy. All of the main characters in this movie are despicable. This is why they are fun. We begin with Russ Richards, the weatherman for a TV station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1988. Russ basks in his celebrity; he’s surrounded by kids wanting autographs, he’s got his own table at Denny’s, his license plate reads 4CASTER. To watch John Travolta wallow in this role is to see an actor with a bead on pettiness and greed; as beefy as a professional wrestler, Travolta looks like he’s bursting at the seams, unleashing his wired-up sarcasm. He can’t wait to tell people he’s been talking with an agent “who handled Gene Rayburn at the height of his career.”
Russ is going broke; his snowmobile dealership is foundering, thanks to the heatwave affecting Harrisburg’s winter — a meteorologist screwed by his inability to predict the weather. He’s also having an affair with Crystal Latroy (Lisa Kudrow), the girl who pulls the lotto balls out of the air-blown lotto machine on TV. This connection leads them to a scheme to rig the lottery, which naturally proves a disaster. Avarice appears everywhere, as the scheme comes to include the station manager (Ed O’Neill), a strip club owner (Tim Roth), a thug (Michael Rapaport), a lazy cop (Bill Pullman), and a bookie (Richard Schiff). There’s also a creepy turn by Michael Moore, of Roger & Me fame, as Crystal’s self-abusing cousin, who fronts for the scheming couple by buying the winning ticket.
Lucky Numbers is directed by Nora Ephron, whose feel-good movies (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) felt a bit divorced from her often catty magazine writing. This movie brings out the mean streak, and it certainly has a lot more life than those doughy concoctions. It needs to move faster than it does, however, and by the time you reach the third act, too many complications suddenly arise and overload takes over.
Screenwriter Adam Resnick, who — moment of silence — wrote and directed Cabin Boy, presumably wanted to find a Fargo sort of vibe. Lucky Numbers doesn’t come anywhere close to that, although a few scenes are genuinely nervy, such as the moment Crystal allows a man to choke to death while she happily sings along with the Happy Days theme song playing on TV. That sort of breathtaking callousness makes Lucky Numbers sometimes quite funny, and ensures that it will bomb.