Lucky Numbers

Who would have thought Nora Ephron — director of “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” — could handle a dark comedy about murder and graft? Well, she can’t, actually, but “Lucky Numbers” is not an altogether bad stab at it.

John Travolta and his enormous face play Harrisburg, Pa., TV weatherman Russ Richards, an impossibly unctuous, smarmy man who actually seems unaware of how insincere he is — which, in a strange way, makes him quite sincere. He truly takes pleasure in having his own table at the local Denny’s, and in signing autographs for his many delighted fans.

Unfortunately, Russ’s side job — a snowmobile dealership — is not doing so well, thanks to an abnormally non-snowy winter. With his money running out and his big-fish-in-a-small-pond lifestyle threatened, he turns to nudie-bar owner Gig (Tim Roth) for help.

After a botched insurance scam whose only result is that it has angered Dale the Thug (Michael Rapaport), Gig and Russ hit on the perfect plan: rigging the state lottery. The drawing of the six numbers is done live on Russ’s station every week, so with the help of lotto girl Crystal (Lisa Kudrow) — whom he happens to be sleeping with anyway — Russ fixes things to make them the holder of a winning ticket.

This is the part in the review where the critic says, “And then things go horribly awry.” People turn up dead, others turn quite greedy, and soon there’s a bitterly lazy and reluctant cop (Bill Pullman) starting to stumble into clues.

For a black comedy to work, you have to believe that people can turn murderous and/or avaricious at the drop of a hat — or at least suspend your belief that people are NOT like that. It’s not enough just to laugh when Dale the Thug stops in mid-threat so he can ask whether the mint Listerine on the counter is any good; you have to accept that such a 180-degree turn is actually possible.

“Lucky Numbers” generally succeeds in all this, with the exception of Russ Richards, who is a very problematic character. Not only is he unlikable — a serious problem in a film like this, where you have to at least enjoy the people, even if you don’t respect them — but he’s inconsistent, too. It’s never clear how willing he is to go along with all the illegal things that he, Gig and Crystal get wrapped up in, and when he shows reluctance, we can’t tell whether it’s due to his conscience or his fear of being caught. Is he a moral person caught in a whirlwind of deceit, or is he eagerly amoral like everyone else? The movie needs to choose one and stick with it.

Kudrow is her usual high-strung, flighty self, and just as funny as ever. Even the most mediocre lines sound funny coming out of her, and she’s a tremendous asset to the film.

There is occasional evidence of the movie’s potential — like a very slowly skidding tractor-trailer — but there is also a lot of footage demonstrating where the possibilities have been wasted. Russ discovering, live on his newscast, that a body he thought was thoroughly disposed of has been found could have been hysterical. Much could have been done with Russ becoming distracted from his weather spiel and absent-mindedly saying or doing the wrong things. But the movie wastes the moment, giving us just a bit of Travolta looking panicked and then running off the set.

If Ephron really wanted to do a dark comedy, she ought to have fully embraced the genre, rather than toying with it and backing down again. “Lucky Numbers” is moderately entertaining, primarily in spite of Travolta, but by no means is it a winner.

C (; R, abundant harsh profanity, some graphic.)