How does a funny, inventive script wind up as the kind of bland, forgettable movie that dutifully pads out the schedule on basic cable? Splitsider explains one such case with its in-depth look at the rise and fall of Lucky Numbers, a barely remembered Nora Ephron comedy from 2000 starring John Travolta, Lisa Kudrow, and muckraking documentarian Michael Moore as a group of inept con artists with a half-baked scheme to rig Pennsylvania’s state lottery. The film’s eventual fate could hardly have been more disappointing for all involved. Splitsider’s Mike Sullivan describes Lucky Numbers as “something you’d notice alone and unwanted on the shelves of a Blockbuster Video two days before it went out of business.” But it all started so promisingly. The script, which was originally called Numbers, was penned by Adam Resnick (The Larry Sanders Show, Death To Smoochy), who took his inspiration from a real-life Pennsylvania lotto scam and wanted to use that memorable story as the “launching point” for a bizarre dark comedy.
The executives at Paramount, however, had other visions. According to the article, they wanted something “lighter” and “airier” and began making “drastic changes,” starting with the title. Hence, Numbers became Lucky Numbers, much to Resnick’s annoyance. More troubling still, the film’s TV weatherman character, eventually to be played by John Travolta, became “sillier [and] more comedic,” incorporating cornball costumes and props into his forecasts. “I hate that goofy weatherman stuff,” says Resnick. “It was a hack cliché even back in 2000.” The screenwriter was further baffled when the job of directing Lucky Numbers was given to romantic comedy specialist Nora Ephron, who graciously tried to keep the author involved in the creative process but was all too intent on making Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, look “beautiful” in the finished film. Some of the darker, more disturbing elements of Resnick’s script did survive, including the death of Moore’s asthmatic character, but this only led to tonal dissonance which left critics baffled. As Roger Ebert wrote in his two-star review: “When you add in the rest of the movie’s violence, it looks like a black comedy that needed to be either blacker or funnier, instead of each approach undercutting the other.”
Although Lucky Numbers was a miserable experience for Adam Resnick, he now claims he’s “no longer bitter about it.” If nothing else, the film was a teaching experience for the scribe, whose latest book is Will Not Attend. And what lesson did Resnick learn? “A lot of times, you’re better off not making the movie.” If nothing else, the Splitsider article may encourage some readers to seek out used DVDs of Lucky Numbers at their local thrift shops, if only so they can watch the film with commentary by the late Nora Ephron herself. Amazon has used copies from $1.48.