"Winning the lottery is like throwing Miracle-Gro on your defects."
At least that's the judgment of a friend of Buddy, a man who won $16 million in the Pennsylvania lottery, spent it all in a Nic Cage-worthy bender (no castles though) and wound up bankrupt. When you find a pair of pants you like, you might as well buy 400 of them, right? Saves on laundry at least. His self-inflicted fate won't engender much sympathy in viewers, at least until they find out that Buddy was also poisoned and later nearly killed again by family members who wanted their piece of the action, risks that are not even mentioned in the fine print on the back of the lottery ticket. Just imagine if he'd won a really big jackpot.
Director Jeffrey Blitz ("Spellbound") could take the simple path by parading a litany of sadsack winners turned losers, and emphasizing the cruel irony of a lucky break turning into tragedy. What he offers instead is a group of subjects who run the gamut from success to abject failure in their post-lottery lives. Blitz avoids any easy moralizing, but also produces a rambling film that lacks a coherent argument, and avoids any deep questions about the lottery. Is the lottery just another form of regressive taxation, and is the states' increasing expansion of them (how long until we need a daily hour-long program in Pennsylvania to show all the live drawings?) a sign of contempt for the poor and middle class? Or is playing the Powerball with its 1 in 200 million odds perhaps a logical response for workers facing the even longer odds of beating a system that has trickled up nearly half the country's wealth into the hands of less than 1% of the population?
Blitz doesn't appear to care about socio-political matters, but is instead interested primarily in getting to know his subjects. Sometimes it's easy to understand why. James is a character who nobody would believe in a fiction film. After his parents died, his life collapsed until he lived like "a bum" with a horde of cats in a filthy, decaying home. Broke and suicidal, he spent his last $3 on lottery tickets and won $5.5 million. No, seriously, it happened. James' fate takes several unexpected turns that I would prefer not to spoil for you, but let's just say there are some happy cats in his hometown.
James deserves his own film, so the other characters shouldn't be blamed for not being quite as interesting. A math maven in California harnesses the power of theta waves to win the lottery only to find his marriage wrecked, but a new world opened up to him. A New Jersey couple relocates when they're unable to deal with the blatant resentment of former friends who feel that they deserve a helping hand since, after all, the couple didn't do anything to earn their money and has no more "right" to it than they do. A Vietnamese immigrant who split a gigantic pot with his ConAgra co-workers decides to spread the wealth among his very extended family with interesting, downright inspiring results. As for Buddy, well, once he's finally broke, at least his family stops trying to kill him. So he's got that going for him.
There doesn't seem to be any overarching point to the film, but I suppose there doesn't need to be. Blitz doesn't want to judge, though it's hard not to feel an existential dread at the sight of Verna, a Delaware woman who spends up to $100 a day on the lottery, and structures her entire life around the drawings and the numbers that "follow" her throughout the day. She even found a book that decodes her dream imagery into lottery numbers. This can't end well, can it? But she's not held up as a victim or a fool, just a woman making her own decisions and trying to get something out of life.
Still, as much as Blitz might prefer to sit back and watch (not that anyone familiar with the controversies surrounding "Spellbound" would suggest he's reluctant to manipulate his material), it seems irresponsible to soft-pedal such a loathsome institution as the lottery. Yes, "disciplined" players can shell out a buck or two for the privilege of spinning some daydreams, but the lottery's effect on society is indisputably deleterious. James is almost worth the price of a ticket all by himself, but the final product is frustratingly superficial.
The film is presented with an interlaced 1.78:1 non-anamorphic transfer. The picture quality is solid if unremarkable. This isn't a visually ambitious film – lots of interviews and brief animated sequences – and this transfer is adequate to the task.
The DVD is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The volume level is very low for some reason. I had to crank up my dial to twice its normal level, a level at which my TV would normally rattle the walls, to hear the dialogue without effort. One dialed up, the sound mix is clear. No subtitles are provided.
The DVD includes Four Additional Scenes (28 min. total) and a text-based Filmmaker Bio.
"Lucky" doesn't address the absurdity of a state sponsored institution that funds programs for the poor and elderly by taking money from the poor and elderly, but it does present an array of interesting characters whose lives change in very different ways after their lottery windfalls. This may or may not be enough material to satisfy you. I was left a bit disappointed, but I certainly won't ever forget James, a millionaire who marches to his own drumbeat, a modern-day Howard Hughes. Of a sort.