Cross Waking Ned Divine with A Simple Plan and you get Nora Ephron’s dark new comedy, Lucky Numbers. Ephron takes a departure from her usual lighthearted romantic fare with this lightweight look at greed and treachery. It includes murder (done for laughs, mind you), a baseball-bat wielding thug (more laughs), extortion, a heartless vixen (har, har, har) and opportunists ready to sell each other out or do each other in faster than you can say, “and the winning number is …”
John Travolta, sporting an unflattering buzz-cut, plays Russ Richards, a TV weatherman of limited fame and fortune in Harrisburg, Pa., whose big dream is to become a game-show host. A local celebrity, he has his own table at Denny’s and owns a snowmobile franchise that an off-season heat wave threatens to destroy. Russ loves his lavish lifestyle, but he’s so overextended he’s about to lose it all. When he’s served a foreclosure notice on his huge house, he becomes so desperate to hold onto his little empire that he’s willing to do anything to keep it. He first entertains a scheme to have some thugs “burglarize” his snowmobile dealership so he can collect insurance money. That scheme only gets the thugs arrested and Russ farther into debt to pay their bail and blackmail.
Russ’ shady friend, the proud proprietor of Gig’s Exotic Dancer Bar, suggests he try rigging the state lottery. Desperate to escape financial ruin, Russ hooks up with Crystal, the Lotto Ball Girl at the same TV station who pulls the winning numbers every night before heading home with Russ for more fun and games.
Russ may be a shallow showman (hey, he’s a TV weatherman), but he’s no crook. “I’m the head of the Rotary Club. I’m a big brother. There’s an omelet named after me, for God’s sake,” he protests. His lucky numbers may come up, but everything else falls apart. Russ is soon in way over his head, realizing too late he doesn’t have the stomach for a life of crime.
Travolta is a more than competent comic actor and he’s the strongest performer in Ephron’s film. His character isn’t a bad guy; he’s just a misguided one. Travolta has you rooting against your better judgement for Russ to pull this caper off. His is the only character with a conscience and the only one remotely sympathetic.
Friends’ Lisa Kudrow—who is a whiner, not an actress—plays the conniving, coldhearted bimbo who would kill her own relatives to grab her share of the lottery winnings. Kudrow always plays her characters as petulant, tantrum-throwing teens, but her Lotto Girl is a complete caricature. Kudrow may have a great body (used to good advantage in this role), but her performance wears thin in a hurry. As the amoral Crystal, she can snack on Cheetos and watch Happy Days reruns while someone lies dying (ha, ha, ha). Crystal runs around screaming, “Off with their heads!” like some mad Queen of Hearts. Her solution to any obstacle is always, “Kill him!” As much as you want Travolta’s character to get away with it, you want her character caught and quartered.
Filmmaker Michael Moore has a surprise role as Crystal’s country-bumpkin cousin, a self-proclaimed “asthmatic masturbator” whose job is to buy the lottery ticket, claim the winnings, take his pittance of a profit and disappear. (He hides the winning ticket in a blowup doll’s mouth, to give you some idea of where the film’s humor lies.)
British actor Tim Roth is less creepy than usual as the smarmy bar owner whose friends include Dale the Thug (Michael Rapaport), Jerry the Bookie, and an assortment of extortionists. This is actually a subdued performance by Roth. He knows the film isn’t worth expending much energy.
Bill Pullman plays a bumbling policeman who’s put back in the line of duty after his superiors catch him feigning disability. He’s the kind of slacker who’s ready to drop a murder case just to avoid the paperwork. Again, his role is a caricature. It’s no wonder his partner just rolls his eyes at this role.
Ed O’Neill, another annoying TV performer, plays the TV station’s general manager, who like everyone else wants a piece of the Lotto action.
Ephron gets credit for trying something new, but her mean-spirited film never has much of an edge, if that’s what she was aiming for. It’s just another silly farce that throws in murder and mayhem for cheap laughs.
Lucky Numbers (R) HH Directed by Nora Ephron. Starring John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow.