"Lucky Numbers," the Nora Ephron-directed tale of an ill-fated rigging of the Pennsylvania State Lottery, reportedly was based on an actual attempt to pull off such a crime. Ephron ("You've Got Mail," "Sleepless in Seattle") and screenwriter Adam Resnick ("Cabin Boy"), one suspects, must have seen something in the incident that sparked their interest enough to turn it into a feature film.
Were the principal players so intriguing they couldn't be ignored? Were their back stories utterly fascinating? Did they weave a web of fascinating interrelationships? Was there something poignant about the rise and fall of the supposed surefire plan to bilk the government? Were there lessons to be learned about greed and human nature?
Whatever the particulars of the real-life story, there's not much of substance left in "Lucky Numbers," aside from the what-if element, dispensed with early on. What if Russ Richards (John Travolta), the happy-go-lucky TV weatherman with a propensity for gambling away huge wads of cash, could conspire with cute, klutzy and acerbic lotto-ball girl Crystal Latroy (Lisa Kudrow) to fix the system and cash in on the $4.6 million prize?
It's just that prospect that gives Ephron's graceless, often grim little movie a nice bounce at the start, with a comic mania that goes for -- and gets -- a few laughs. Russ, all corny moves on the air and bubble-headed naiveté off screen, is one of the most popular, well-liked bachelors in all of Harrisburg, Pa. His snowmobile dealership might be about to tank because of the unseasonably sunny winter weather, but he can always count on his own space and a reserved booth at Denny's.
Travolta, with dark, close-cropped hair and a perpetual loopy grin, is funny at first as a self-deluded television personality whose greatest ambition is to become host of a game show. And then, after about 15 minutes or so, viewers might find themselves wondering why they're so easily able to see the seams of the actor's work. He's pushing darn hard to make a connection with a character whose motivations are poorly stitched together. It's not one of Travolta's finer efforts, and the performance is doubly unfortunate in the wake the awful job he did in the disastrous "Battlefield Earth."
Crystal might be a dim bulb, but she comes off as at least a couple of watts brighter than poor Russ, as she lays out the specifics of the plan, approved by local strip-club owner Gig (Tim Roth). The cut-rate Vanna White turns out to be vicious, manipulative and murderous -- in short, a little bit less sympathetic than anyone else in the film, with the exception of bat-carrying goon Dale the Thug (Michael Rapaport). Kudrow's excellent sense of comic timing, though, and precisely aimed off-the-cuff remarks, make it a pleasure (as usual) to watch her go.
The free fall of the scam, as it begins to unravel, might have provided grist for black comedy, high drama or, as in the very different "A Simple Plan," a real sense of tragedy. But Ephron and Resnick seem to have lost their way home, allowing the story to unfold rather aimlessly after a reasonably sound set-up. A terrific cast -- rounded out by Bill Pullman, Ed O'Neill, Richard Schiff, Michael Moore and Daryl Mitchell -- was gathered, and the cumulative talent was summarily squandered. Sad to say, it's a botched job.