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The laughs add up

'Lucky Numbers' good for some yuks

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In this story:

Warm winter, hot water

Dumb characters, sharp dialogue



(CNN) -- The screwball comedy/caper "Lucky Numbers" by filmmaker Nora Ephron showcases the prolific writer/director at her best and worst.

As usual, her sharp, overlapping dialogue is snappy, character-driven and insightful. But she's also been known to be a bit pretentious and condescending toward the characters who don't share her urbane world view and who choose to live in places other than New York, Washington or Los Angeles. Ephron loves to underline the "rube" factor whenever possible, and this is clearly evident in "Lucky Numbers."

Her co-writer on this film, Adam Resnick, shares her style. He's actually from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania -- this story, set in 1988, takes place there -- and obviously enjoyed skewering his hometown.

It's worth noting that Resnick got his start writing for David Letterman, a comic known for making fun of confused "real people" on the streets of New York, putting it on national TV and calling it comedy. Some would call it cruel.

So forgive -- or ignore -- any of those sneering tendencies in this fast-paced, ill-mannered comedy about a bunch of people with few, if any, redeeming qualities. You may find yourself swept up in the off-kilter universe occupied by the characters played by John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow.

Warm winter, hot water

Travolta plays Russ Richards, a local (read that: yokel) who happens to be a weatherman for a small station in Harrisburg. Remember, this is the 1980s, the "greed is good" decade, and Richards relishes his status as a big fish in a small pond. As such, he wallows in the perks of the job -- his own parking space, for example, and a reserved table at a nearby Denny's restaurant.

Much to his regret, Russ can only predict the weather, not create it, and he's in a jam. He's also the owner of a very lucrative snowmobile dealership. Unfortunately, the winter is balmy, and he's about to lose his shirt.

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He turns to a local thug, Gig, played by Tim Roth, for help in hatching a plan to get out of debt. Gig's an old buddy who runs a strip club. Apparently that's as close as Ephron thinks you can get to organized crime in the hinterland.

After a series of events - which won't be described here; it's best to enjoy them when seeing the film -- Russ gets in way over his head with some seriously deranged hoodlums.

The main villain is one "Dale the Thug," played by Michael Rapaport, who could do this bit in his sleep. Call it type casting, or maybe he's just found his acting niche. Regardless, Rapaport does it well and is very funny in the role of the bad penny that just keeps turning up.

The plot heats up when Gig and Russ enlist the aid of the TV station's state Lotto "ball girl," Crystal Latroy (Kudrow). In a gem of a scene in which Russ enlists her help, the three contrive a plan to rig the lottery, a collection of numbered Ping-Pong balls that Crystal each week plucks out of a plastic globe. They start dreaming of the millions that soon will be lining their pockets as the journey from winning the money to getting the money begins.

Dumb characters, sharp dialogue

Since this is a caper comedy, there are only three types of characters -- perpetrators, victims and witnesses. Ed O'Neill fills one spot in a funny turn as the boss at the TV station where Russ and Crystal hatch their diabolical plan. Bill Pullman phones in his role as a stereotypical dumb cop, a character used in countless past comedies.

Finally, documentarian Michael Moore ("Roger & Me," 1989) does a great turn as Crystal's inbred cousin whose main hobby is masturbating -- another Ephron shot at the heartland: What else is there to do in the sticks?

As is always the case in an Ephron film, dialogue saves the day. "There's a limit to my classiness," says Crystal, who decides that the only way to get the station manager out of the way is to kill him. "I'm hopped up on wine coolers and antidepressants -- don't mess with me!" snarls "Dale the Thug."

"Lucky Numbers," like Lotto balls themselves, bounces along at a fast pace and, despite its faults, has plenty to applaud. Travolta and Kudrow make a winning combination, and the result is mindless, instantly forgettable comic fluff that will engage you, given half a chance. Grab the popcorn.

"Lucky Numbers" opens nationwide on Friday. Rated R. 108 minutes.



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