Lucky Numbers

John Travolta plays Russ Richards, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's super-popular TV weatherman. He seems to be at the top of the world - he drives a flashy Jag, the locals love him, he even has his own private table at Denny's (ha ha) - but his financial situation is desperate: preparing for winter, he's loaded up his car dealership with a storeroom full of new snowmobiles, only to see the warmest winter in years.

Russ needs cash, lots of it, and he doesn't mind doing whatever it takes to get it. Which eventually brings him to a plan to rip off the Pennsylvania state lottery with help from his girlfriend (Lisa Kudrow) who picks the winning numbers on TV, a shady buddy (Tim Roth), and various other losers.

Artless studio hack Nora Ephron is best known for her dippy romantic comedies (Sleepless in Seattle, Michael, et al). So it should be a gigantic red flag that she has decided, with Lucky Numbers, to take on a black-humored farce.

At least Ephron didn't write it: those honors go to Adam Resnick (who concocted both Get a Life and Cabin Boy). Actually, the script isn't that bad: the jokes are overwritten, but the story is at least lively and unpredictable. In the hands of a director who can deftly handle satire - perhaps Alexander Payne? - Lucky Numbers might have worked. But Ephron doesn't have good comic timing, she doesn't know what to do with a camera, and she seems positively terrified of giving her actors any direction.

Without someone to guide the cast, you wind up with wildly variable performances. John Travolta, for his part, is awful. Simply terrible. He screams and mugs his way through every scene and practically sinks the movie. Kudrow tries her best, Roth phones in his performance, and the supporting players come and go. (Only Bill Pullman, arriving in the third act as a flaky cop who hates his job, elicits any real laughs; documentarian Michael Moore embarrasses himself in a rare character role.)

The poorly-chosen '80s songs on the soundtrack reflect the film's seemingly arbitrary period setting of 1988. The movie otherwise looks just like 2000 to me. I see no reason why Resnick felt the story needed to take place 12 years ago. Maybe 1988 was a good year for him. But 2000 is a terrible year for Lucky Numbers.