“Boring” is seldom an adjective that applies to HBO documentaries, but it came to mind with frequency during “Lucky,” which takes a theoretically fertile topic — the billions of dollars Americans spend on state and regional lotteries — and squanders it through lack of direction and focus. That’s particularly surprising — and disappointing — given that the director is Jeffrey Blitz, whose “Spellbound” was showered with well-deserved praise. Although some colorful characters pass through Blitz’s lens, the winners here, ultimately, will be those who spin the dial to another channel.
“Lucky” is filled with all kinds of interesting facts about the long odds against hitting a big payday, as well as the $62 billion spent annually on those dreams — more than is shelled out on movies, books and sporting events combined.
Yet while there are cautionary tales here about people who addictively invest in those tantalizing tickets — most notably a Delaware woman who plunks down as much as $100 a day — Blitz’s doc spends even more time with various winners, examining how sudden millions changed their lives.
Virtually all these stories, however, have a familiar feel to them: Money couldn’t necessarily buy happiness (though it doesn’t hurt), giving up one’s career potentially means sacrificing identity, or the Horatio Alger-like tale of a Vietnamese immigrant suddenly able to support his entire extended family in the U.S. and abroad.
Actually, the most indelible sequence is also the cruelest: A practical joke, caught on tape, where a guy is tricked by his friends to think he won millions, using a gag they saw on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” What’s consistently missing is a clear point of view or focus. Blitz touches on the mix of superstition and magical thinking that compels people to gamble on a near-unattainable dream, then undercuts that premise with the caviar wishes of those who — against towering odds — came out ahead.
Thematically, “Lucky” would seem to be the perfect topic for our economically strapped times, but what emerges is too muddled — a cross-section of Americana that never quite zeroes in on the something-for-nothing, luck-over-accomplishment mentality the lottery embodies, or how the whole system tends to operate as a tax on the neediest.
Given HBO’s reputation for advocacy filmmaking, Blitz has taken a juicy subject and, after 90 minutes, delivered a movie as light and hollow as a worthless ticket.
As they say, better luck next time.