As a multipronged examination of one aspect of the American Dream, “Lucky” isn’t quite as spellbinding as “Spellbound.” Where helmer Jeffrey Blitz’s thrilling and incisive 2003 docu was all about beating the competition, his latest nonfiction work focuses on people who beat the odds, those average Americans who became millionaires after winning the lottery, only to discover that fortune and misfortune go hand-in-hand. Effortlessly engaging in a how-about-that, what-would-I-do kind of way, this assemblage of happy endings and cautionary tales might be too slight to post winning numbers theatrically, but could be just the ticket as a smallscreen item.
As noted in one of the many factoids and statistics strewn throughout the film, state lotteries command some $62 billion in ticket sales every year, making them by a wide margin the most popular form of paid entertainment in the U.S. — and one that tends to thrive in times of economic recession. Blitz (who also served as d.p.) and his crew track down a handful of those fortunate enough — or, in some cases, unfortunate enough — to have hit the jackpot.
On the more fortunate end of the spectrum are Quang and Mai Dao, Nebraska-based Vietnamese immigrants who scored $22.1 million (sharing a $365 million payout with Quang’s co-workers at ConAgra Foods), yet continue to uphold their basic values and traditions — Mai still grows her own vegetables — even with a significant lifestyle upgrade. At the opposite end is William “Buddy” Post III, whose mismanagement of his $16 million fortune and harassment by relatives culminated in an assassination attempt by his own brother; Post’s story occasions the film’s best line: “Winning the lottery is like throwing Miracle-Gro on your character defects.”
Somewhere in between are $22 million winner Robert Uomini, a Berkeley, Calif., academic who asserts that mathematics, not money, remains his first love (though he confesses to Lamborghini lust), and Illinois man James Gatzke, who was practically homeless and nearly suicidal when he purchased the ticket that won him $5.5 million.
In some ways, the film’s key subjects are New Jersey couple Kristine and Steven White, who, before they won $110 million, the largest jackpot in the history of the Pennsylvania lottery, embodied the middle-class comfort to which most Americans aspire. The Whites — who received 12,000 letters from people around the world, begging for money — speak eloquently about the difficulty of staying grounded in the face of such obscene wealth, the resentment they felt from peers, and one of the chief casualties of their new lifestyle: the sense of identity and belonging conferred by the mere fact of working for a living.
Padded out with interstitial material featuring lottery players who scored smaller fortunes (or nothing at all), and knitted together by alternately upbeat and poignant musical selections, these easy-viewing stories are never less than engrossing, even if they rarely achieve much drama or depth. Nor is “Lucky” above audience manipulation; its repetitive focus on the Daos’ initial journey from Vietnam to the U.S. (talk about a land of opportunity) at times seems to strain for pathos, and its withholding of a key detail from Post’s history for maximum ironic impact feels slightly cheap. Still, Blitz’s fundamental embrace of human eccentricity shines through in a film that glows with optimism even as it reveals the dark side of a miracle.