Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Lucky Numbers (2000)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - When they put their heads's a no brainer.

John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow make a "high-energy comedy team" (David Sheehan, CBS-TV) in this side-splittingly funny comedy inspired by a real-life scam to win the Pennsylvania lottery.

Travolta "is truly irresistible" (Sandie Newton, CBS-TV) as Russ Richards, a weatherman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Russ is a local celebrity, but when an unusually mild winter causes his snowmobile dealership to take a plunge, Russ needs a get-rich scheme -- and fast. With his greedy girlfriend (Kudrow) -- the TV station's lotto-ball girl -- and a criminally minded buddy (Tim Roth), Russ hatches a plan to fix the lottery. Russ's numbers come up right, but then everything goes completely wrong, throwing Russ and his co-conspirators into comic chaos.

Directed by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) and co-starring Ed O'Neill, Michael Rapaport and Bill Pullman, Lucky Numbers is a comedy jackpot for film fans.

Director: Nora Ephron
Cast: John Travolta, Lisa Kudrow, Tim Roth, Ed O'Neill, Michael Rapaport, Bill Pullman
Box Office: Budget: $65 million. Opening Weekend: $4.536 million (2497 screens). Gross: $10.014 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 16 chapters; rated R; 105 min.; $29.99; street date 3/20/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Director Nora Ephron; Cast and Crew Interviews; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/C

Taken from Dr. Joanne Hsu’s page on psychology from the Houston Community College website: Norepinephrine “plays a role in eating, sleep and mood. Lower levels of activity in norepinephrine is related to depression”.

On the other hand, for me, high levels of writer and director Nora Ephron are related to depression. The more I watch her material - through films like When Harry Met Sally, Hanging Up and You’ve Got Mail - the more glum and morose I become. I guess some like her brand of “chick flick”, but I don’t fall into that category.

Add her most recent entry, 2000’s Lucky Numbers, to that list as well. The film stands as a monumental waste of talent in which we find a generally solid cast totally trashed by weak writing and clueless direction.

The film’s plot held a lot of comic potential. TV Weatherman Russ Richards (John Travolta) is the proverbial big fish in the small middle Pennsylvania pond, but he seems unable to control his various impulses and he’s gotten himself into a financial bind. The main culprit? His snowmobile dealership is in the tank due to a long stretch of unseasonably warm winter weather. (Ooh, the irony - a weatherman doomed by good weather!)

Russ operates on tips from semi-sleazy strip joint owner Gig (Tim Roth) and becomes more desperate after one of these - a faked robbery attempt - fails. Gig recommends that Russ use his connections at the station - he’s boinking lottery-ball girl Crystal (Lisa Kudrow) - to fix the state lottery. Bingo, bango - money problems solved!

Of course, things never work that simply in this kind of movie, and many difficulties ensue. Some of these relate to the moronic thug Dale (Michael Rapaport) used by Gig for many criminal odd jobs, while others occur due to the involvement of moronic patsy Walter (Michael Moore), and further complications result when moronic police officer Lakewood (Bill Pullman) gets on the case.

With all these morons around - Russ and Crystal aren’t exactly firing all their synapses either - it’s a wonder anyone can put on their pants in the morning. Of the entire cast, the only really intelligent participant is Lakewood’s partner Chambers (Daryl Mitchell), but he’s not given much to do. In comparison, Gig seems moderately smart, but a few plot points demonstrate that he may be pretty dim as well, and station manager Dick (Ed O’Neill) portrays some poor judgment too.

When a movie offers so many negatives, I feel as though I should try to concentrate on the positives first. Umm… I’m thinking… Well, I usually didn’t feel suicidal while I watched it. And Kudrow looked pretty sexy for the most part.

Otherwise, Lucky Numbers felt crude and humorless. Never did I feel any connection with or empathy for the characters. Frankly, they were a lifeless bunch that offered no spirit or interest. It’s fine to have a movie with roles that are varying degrees of nasty or inept, but something about these people seemed particularly off-putting.

The lack of charm conveyed by the actors didn’t help flesh out these poorly-written parts. At his best, Travolta can be a solid and engaging presence, and he’s shown a flair for some forms of comedy. However, he doesn’t seem suited for this kind of broadly-humorous role, and his performance can be painfully forced; he tries so darned hard to be funny that the result is a labored and irritating character.

As she does in most of her roles, Kudrow simply plays a mild variation on Phoebe from Friends. Here she takes the part as a very nasty piece of work, without any of the innocence or charm usually associated with her characters. The result is a sexy but annoying and unlikable persona who I found to be grating.

In regard to the rest of the cast, Roth and O’Neill seemed inoffensive, and Rapaport wasn’t bad. Pullman appeared particularly lackluster, though. His lazy cop felt like a variation on Earl the idiot in 1986’s wonderful Ruthless People. However, while Pullman pulled off a great feat of earnest stupidity in the older film, he just appeared unrealistically dense here. No one as clueless as Lakewood could have shown as much success, and Pullman adds no life to the role.

Any film that adds smug, self-righteous documentarian Moore to the mix is going to run into problems. Indeed, Moore offers a crude, flat character as Crystal’s cousin Walter; he made gags about masturbation even nastier than they should have been. Nonetheless, in a project as flawed as Lucky Numbers, Moore is the least of our worries. The script by Adam Resnick lacked any spark or wit, and he even steals from Seinfeld when we hear a gag that involved the mispronunciation of “Svengali”.

As an aside, a throwaway gag that refers to Microsoft as an unknown little company circa 1990 bugged me as well; that group was already very well-established by that point in time. However, the brainlessness found in Lucky Numbers hopes you won’t notice problems like that - a number of others occur as well - but with so little else of consequence on display, I had nothing better to do than nit-pick historical inaccuracies. Lucky Numbers suffers from many problems, but none are as sad as the tremendous waste involved with the flick. So many talented people worked to produce so little of consequence in this feeble comedy.

The DVD:

Lucky Numbers appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though it contains a few flaws, as a whole the picture looked quite solid.

Sharpness seemed very crisp and accurate throughout the movie. Although some interior shots appeared mildly drab and bland, the focus remained clear and well-defined at all times. I never discerned any signs of soft or hazy images. Moiré effects and jagged edges appeared absent, but print flaws presented some concerns. Grit and speckles cropped up with surprising frequency in this very-recent film. The defects weren’t overwhelming by any stretch of the imagination, but they seemed a little heavy for a movie that hit screens five months ago.

Colors looked very well-rendered at all times. I found the film to offer some nicely bright and rich hues, especially through the variety of neon tones seen in the picture; LN often favors more garish colors to match its tacky characters, and the huts appeared clean and solid. Black levels were also deep and rich, but shadow detail could seem slightly heavy at times. This related to the mildly murky interiors for the most part, but some other shots appeared a little thick as well. Ultimately, Lucky Numbers offered a strong picture as a whole, but some minor issues knocked my grade down to a “B”.

In contrast, although the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack also earned a “B”, it seemed more consistent. However, the lack of auditory ambition heard in the mix caused the ranking here; the track was well-executed for what it was, but it didn’t present a terribly involving experience.

Since I don’t expect audio fireworks in a screwy comedy such as LN, however, I don’t regard this as much of a problem. The soundfield stayed strongly oriented toward the forward channels. In that spectrum music dominated the presentation, as the score offered a nicely-separated and distinct track. Effects also cropped up on the sides at times, and a line or two of dialogue emanated from those channels, but mostly they remained fairly centered. The surrounds largely contributed nothing more than general ambiance, with little rear-specific activity to note. During some shots at Gig’s club, the atmosphere appeared pretty lively, but those scenes were exceptions to the rule.

Audio quality appeared very good. At times dialogue presented a little edginess, but those occasions were rare, and most of the speech seemed crisp and natural, with no problems related to intelligibility. Effects were nicely clean and accurate, and the louder examples appeared rich and broad. Music seemed clearly-reproduced, with bright highs and acceptable bass. The low end could have been deeper, but the dynamics were largely good. Ultimately, the audio fit the film appropriately and seemed positive.

Lucky Numbers contributes a few supplements, starting with an audio commentary from director Nora Ephron. This running, screen-specific piece occasionally provided a few nuggets of interesting information, but for the most part it seemed pretty dull. For one, Ephron tends to let a lot of empty gaps fill much of the track, so most of her remarks appear only sparsely throughout the piece. When she does speak, she tends to either tell us how great others were or she provides discussion of plot points. Since the story and the characterizations are quite thin, the latter aspect seemed bizarre; unlike the excellent exploration of The Talented Mr. Ripley offered by its director, there’s nothing much to examine in Lucky Numbers. Ultimately, the track may be worthwhile for those who really liked the movie, but others should skip it.

In addition to the original theatrical trailer, more “happy talk” appears in the Cast and Crew Interviews. This nine-minute piece includes snippets from Ephron, Travolta, Kudrow, Roth, and O’Neill during which they tell us how wonderful it was to work with everyone else. Here we witness Ephron as she calls Crystal “one of the great women’s parts of all-time”. Hoo boy! Anyway, these fluffy bits are supremely avoidable.

In Lucky Numbers, we see Nora Ephron - she of the sickly-sweet chick flick - try to take on semi-Tarantino territory, and the result is a clumsy, caustic mess. Nothing in this movie works, and the picture provides a labored, unfunny experience. The DVD provides better than average picture and sound plus a smattering of decent extras. Although Paramount have produced a solid disc, I can’t recommend it just because the material encoded on the platter is so weak. Lucky Numbers had some potential but all of that was wasted in this dreadful film.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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