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'Lucky Numbers'

The 666 Fix: 'Lucky Numbers' turns sad morality tale into a farce

Friday, October 27, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Say it ain't so, Nick.

'Lucky Numbers'

RATING: R for language

STARRING: John Travolta, Lisa Kudrow, Tim Roth, Ed O'Neill, Bill Pullman, Michael Moore

DIRECTOR: Nora Ephron

WEB SITE: www.luckynumbers

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars


Such was Pittsburgh's collective reaction, up and down its three rivers, to the infamous 1980 Pennsylvania State Lottery fix, co-perpetrated by our beloved hometown host of "Bowling for Dollars." It was stranger than fiction and audaciously bizarre: injecting the pingpong balls with paint to make them too heavy to blow up to the surface -- all except the numbers 4 and 6.

The devil made him do it. And then the devil signed his work, queering the whole scam with "666" instead of 646, 446, 664 or any of the other less suspicious permutations.

"Lucky Numbers," indeed: 666! What were the odds? What must have been going through the mind of the guilt-ridden guy who had to announce them -- and, soon enough, take the fall? It was chilling. A medieval morality tale. Or at least a good "Twlight Zone" episode. Real drama. Maybe not high tragedy, but hardly low comedy.

If you didn't know or care about all this, you -- well, you wouldn't know and care about it. Nobody in Sioux City or Biloxi will be disturbed that director Nora Ephron and writer Adam Resnick have turned Nick's real-life downfall into a "zany" comic adventure played for laughs instead of pathos.

I suppose I'd have been tempted to do the same if the actual event had taken place in Biloxi or Sioux Falls.

The film story, anyway, is set 188 miles to the east of us in Harrisburg -- to get more than three miles' mileage out of Three Mile Island. Instead of a bowling-show host ("Where ya from? Kittanning? You bring some relatives down with you today?"), our hero is slick-talkin', high-livin' TV weatherman Russ Richards (John Travolta), who has a dozen dubious irons in the fire. The one he's most concerned about is his snowmobile dealership, which is in deep doo-doo due to the warmest December on record -- temps in the pleasant 60s, no cold fronts or hint of snow in sight.

Russ' creditors are in the process of repossessing his Jaguar and his house as well as his dealership, and he's in need of a quick influx of cash -- preferably the $6.4 million of it he could collect from a lottery fix. The seed is planted by his sleazy old pal Gig ("Pulp Fiction's" Tim Roth), a strip-joint operator, and happily agreed to by Crystal (Lisa Kudrow), the sexy TV lotto girl and accomplice-from-hell. Injecting the pingpong balls and distracting the security guard are the easy parts. Who can be trusted to cut in on the deal by buying the winning ticket?

Crystal's asthmatic cousin Walter (Michael Moore), shlepped in from Ohio and installed at the fabulous Hollywood Motel, whose mold spores -- or Crystal -- will be the death of him. Walter has clear plans for what he's going to do with the money: Give half to his church and use the other half to open an adult bookstore.

Then a bookie gets wise to the scheme and wants a cut, too. So does a thug named Dale (made violent by anti-depressants), hired to kill the bookie. So does Russ' station manager (Ed O'Neill), who's been sleeping with Crystal, who is now sleeping with Russ.

It's The Gang That Couldn't Fix Straight.

Travolta -- the veritable spitting image of a young Jerry Lewis -- is quite good (nobody does "slick" any better), Kudrow is a hoot, and the movie has a number of truly funny moments, assuming you can suspend all rational disbelief.

"Lucky Numbers" is well directed by Ephron, who turns the great "666 Fix" from nonfiction into farce -- which, one must admit, it pretty much was. But my cousin from Turtle Creek was on "Bowling for Dollars" once and, to tell you the truth, I always perversely wished Nick had gotten away with it.

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