Lucky Numbers” reps an unlucky roll of the dice for John Travolta and director Nora Ephron as they attempt to match the success they enjoyed with the fluky “Michael” four years back. Going into comic overdrive in trying to put across an essentially unappealing story about two unpleasant people hoisted on their own petard after they pull off a lottery scam, Travolta and Lisa Kudrow manage to spark a few mild laughs along the way, but this is strictly a minor-league late fall entry for Paramount that won’t do much to right Travolta’s ship after this summer’s “Battlefield Earth.”
With close-cropped jet-black hair and an antic feyness that recall Jerry Lewis at times, Travolta bounds into frame as Russ Richards, a big fish in a very small pond. Russ loves the perks of being a popular TV weatherman in Harrisburg, Pa., circa 1988 — he’s adored by females young and old, has his own parking space and reserved table at the local Denny’s and is able to promise his audience 60-degree days even though it’s almost Christmas.
The snowless conditions, however, have dampened Russ’ sideline snowmobile business, to the point where his imminent insolvency pushes him into an unsavory scheme with the TV station’s lotto-ball floozy, Crystal Latroy (Kudrow).
The pair, who have a casual sex thing going on, manage to pull the winning number, but before they can collect the $4.6 million so many things go wrong that Russ becomes desperate to unload the ticket for $100,000 just to escape all the debts and problems that have mushroomed as a result of the caper.
Although ostensibly inspired by a 1980 scandal surrounding the fixing of the Pennsylvania State Lottery, the story is hardly one to quicken audience pulses, especially when the characters are as unlikely and fundamentally unsympathetic as the ones fabricated by scripter Adam Resnick (“Cabin Boy”).
Indeed, for a mainstream comedy, pic develops a notably harsh tone via the foul language and attitudes favored by Kudrow’s profoundly amoral Crystal and the casually criminal motives espoused and often acted upon by the assortment of scruffy peripheral figures; the characters all seem to be wishing they were in a Coen brothers film, and, under the circumstances, who can blame them?
Among them are Gig (Tim Roth, in for an easy payday), a strip club owner who encourages Russ toward illicit solutions at every turn; “Dale the Thug” (Michael Rapaport), a hit man all the more dangerous for his bumbling ways; Walter (Michael Moore of “Roger & Me” in rare fictional mode), Crystal’s hulking cousin and an early cohort in the lottery scheme; and Dick (Ed O’Neill), the snaky TV station manager who’s also getting it on with Crystal and unhesitatingly blackmails her and Russ when he discovers what they’ve done.
An ultra-lame subplot involves a lazy cop (Bill Pullman) forced, with his partner (Daryl Mitchell), to investigate the disappearance of Gig’s bookie, Jerry (Richard Schiff), and royally pissed when it inescapably turns into a murder case that will actually require some effort. The deadpan humor clearly aimed for by Pullman doesn’t come off at all in this context.
Many of the scenes pivot on Russ’ reacting in an exaggerated manner to untoward events, by laughing them off in a loud, professional-broadcaster manner or by displaying shocked disbelief.
All Travolta can do is provide the veneer of an eternally optimistic man who just wants to be liked and to host a big-time gameshow one day — there’s no more substance to the character than that, no emotional longing or void that would give birth to poignancy when things don’t work out as planned.
Crystal is a downmarket gold-digger and conniver, a “twisted psycho bitch” whose sharklike instincts somehow haven’t gotten her out of Harrisburg after 35 years or so.
It’s a tribute to Kudrow’s winning comic ways that she makes this objectively nasty character not only palatable but unpredictable and lively. Thesp’s offbeat sense of timing, which involves disrupting an uncommon stillness with sudden flustered utterances or equally surprising matter-of-fact remarks, remains in good working order, although the relentlessly mercenary nature of her character leaves a disagreeable taste.
Humorous intent is not enhanced by the unphotogenic nature of Harrisburg in the exteriors and the mostly drab interiors. Neither action nor dialogue scenes have been covered or edited to maximum effect, making for a visually unattractive picture of meager verve and dynamism.
Combo of George Fenton’s original score and more than two dozen tunes (many of them covers of popular favorites) wallpapers the affair.