A message to those of you who might be considering larceny, fraud, or murder — it’s much, much more complicated than it seems. Unfortunately, the people who are not smart enough to figure that out are the people who think that it might make sense to, for example, inject paint into the number balls that they use to select the winning lottery ticket, so that only certain numbers will come up. It turns out that the people in this movie use whatever intelligence they have to think up this idea, leaving none left over for small details like what to do with the people who discover what they’ve done and want a piece of the action.
Inspired by a true story, this is the tale of a Harrisburg, PA television weatherman who conspires with the girl who selects the winning numbers for the state lottery to make sure they will have the winning ticket.
John Travolta plays Russ Richards, a popular local figure with a permanent parking space and roped-off table at his favorite local bistro, Denny’s. He has ambitiously but unwisely invested in a snowmobile franchise. Despite his professional expertise, he did not anticipate that Harrisburg’s uncharacteristically balmy winter would leave him on the brink of bankruptcy. He consults his friend, Gig (Tim Roth), who owns a strip joint. Gig arranges a robbery of the snowmobile showroom, but that goes wrong. So he suggests to Russ that perhaps Russ’s girlfriend Crystal (Lisa Kudrow), who goes on camera in a ball gown each week to select the winning lottery numbers, might just be persuaded to help make sure that the numbers she picks are the ones they pick. It turns out that Crystal is delighted.
Russ and Crystal behave like people who know for sure that they were meant to be rich, and are getting increasingly annoyed that somehow the message never got across. But Russ is a sweet guy at heart, if cowardly and self-centered. What he really loves are the fans. Crystal turns out to be completely ruthless. What she really loves is stuff — as she models her new Italian leather coat she happily announces that she will never again have to wear anything that didn’t come over on a boat. Crystal brings in her weird, hulking, snuffling, fun-doll fan of a cousin (Michael Moore) to be the ostenstible purchaser of the lottery ticket. But when he tells her he wants more of the money, she dispatches him with less interest than she would show in a broken nail.
Director Nora Ephron, best known for writing and directing sparkly romantic comedies like “Sleepless in Seattle,” goes for a darker kind of comedy here. She gets terrific performances from a first-rate cast, especially Bill Pullman as a lazy police officer. But Ephron is a long way from the Coen brothers. She has some sharp insights about the ambitions and strategies of her characters and there are some very funny moments, a sort of “Maltese Falcon” on acid, but ultimately it does not work.
Parents should know that the movie has very strong language, nudity, sexual references and situations, assault, murder, shooting, drinking, smoking, and drug use, in addition to the overall theme of larceny and fraud. Some characters are punished, but some are not.
Families who see this movie should talk about why the money is important to the characters and how they calculate their risks. Movies about crime are always in some sense movies about problem-solving, and it is worth pointing out the way that the characters respond to the initial challenge of figuring out a way to sabotage the lottery and to the subsequent problems that they did not anticipate. Families may also want to talk about why people do and do not obey the law and what the consequences are for themselves and society if they don’t.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Fargo,” a darker but more successful comedy about larceny and murder.