Published October 1, 2000
Having once lived in the area served by Channel 6 (Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, Lebanon), where Russ Richards (John Travolta) works as celebrity weather man in Nora Ephron’s amusing Lucky Numbers, I can assure you that not everybody in Central Pennsylvania is a moron. Nor would anyone but a supercilious Hollywood type suppose that “Harrisburg’s most exclusive bistro” was Denny’s. But everybody in this movie is a moron, and crooked to boot, and the failure of Miss Ephron or her screenwriter, Andrew Resnick to provide any background of intellectual or moral normality (if you assume, as most people probably still do, that neither stupidity nor wickedness is normal) against which the action can take place is not only a slander against Pennsylvanians but a fatal flaw in what might otherwise have been a terrific movie, and is in any case a terrifically funny one.
The comic potential of stupidity has been much exploited in the last decade, notably by the Farrelly brothers in Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary and Me, Myself and Irene. Perhaps this is because we are running out of things to make fun of. Drunks, foreigners, ethnic stereotypes, all are forbidden territory for the humorist. But somehow stupidity, though it is arguably no more the victim’s fault than skin color or nationality and less so than alcoholism, is still fair game. More serious directors have also explored the possibilities of the subject, especially Paul Thomas Anderson in Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. Miss Ephron has learned a lot from both these strands of recent moviemaking, but as so often in Hollywood, the comic premiss is pushed way too far.
On the positive side, you have to admire the fine performances she gets out of Mr. Travolta and Lisa Kudrow, who plays Crystal, the TV lotto-girl with whom he conspires to rig the Pennsylvania state lottery in a desperate attempt to save his failing snowmobile dealership. Naturally things go just wrong enough that everyone from the station manager, Dick Simmons (Ed O’Neill) to Dale the Thug (Michael Rapoport), who removes one or two human obstacles from their way, to Crystal’s asthmatic, masturbating cousin, Walter (Michael Moore) wants a piece of the action. All are equally stupid and unattractive, which works out well for Mr Travolta’s Russ, who is merely stupid.
He does a good enough job with the role, but there are two really superb performances in the film which in a way overshadow him. The first is that of Michael Weston as Larry, Russ’s young assistant at the snowmobile dealership who hero-worships him and is constantly coming up with ideas—like free cheese—to try to lure customers into the showroom in spite of unseasonably warm temperatures. His stupidity takes the form of unquenchable optimism and a sweet imperviousness to disillusion. All by himself, Larry almost redeems the movie by making almost believable, almost admirable, the innocence of these Central Pennsylvanians—rather as Frances McDormand’s Marge, the pregnant police chief, did the Minnesotans of Fargo. But in the end his part is not big enough, and the focus naturally returns to the superstar, John Travolta, and the super actress, Miss Kudrow.
She has been over this territory before, in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion of 1997, but you would scarcely have guessed from her amiable dimness in that film that she had it in her to add to mere stupidity the extra dimension of viciousness that she does here. She can even make us believe it, even make it sound as chilling as it is funny, when their adviser in criminal activity, the strip-club owner, Gig (Tim Roth) says to her that “Russ never had the stomach for this” and she replies: “Well I do. I want that ticket back. And I want Dick Simmons dead. And I want his head cut off so I can hang it from my rear view mirror.” Then, as if half-apologetically, she adds: “There is a limit to my classiness.” Her performance, along with Mr. Weston’s, is enough to make this movie worth seeing.
The other great flaw in the film—though this is now so common that it might seem to some hardly worth mentioning anymore—is that the perpetrators (at least one of them) get away with their fraud. Naturally, the police are even more stupid than the crooks, and sleepy Bill Pullman as Policeman Pat, who says when a body, trussed up and weighted with a brick, is found in the river: “Why is everybody around here so ‘foul play’ happy?” seems a surprising waste of talent. It would be expecting too much, I suppose, for the police to represent moral order in the midst of this chaos, but if somebody had done it this would have been a much better film.