What could be more humorous, in a pathetic sort of way, than the notion of a local TV weatherman in 1988 for fun, let's locate him in Harrisburg, Pa., best known for its nearby 1979 nuclear-reactor disaster who honestly enjoys his local celebrity? What could be more pathetic, in a humorous sort of way, than a man so unsophisticated he doesn't realize that such perks as his reserved table at Denny's and his happy, casual humps with the TV station's curvy lottery-ball-number announcer are the stunted pleasures of rubes?
To Nora Ephron and Adam Resnick, the director and writer of Lucky Numbers, nothing: What's a riot to them is simply the dumbness of ''hicks,'' by the very nature of their hickdom. The laughs are few in this inert, ungenerous comedy because Ephron's tendency to condescend to her characters, coupled with Harrisburg-born Resnick's mocking worldview (which he honed writing for former hick weatherman David Letterman, Chris Elliott, and The Larry Sanders Show), makes for a queasy time. And the more the filmmakers pile misadventure upon misadventure in an attempt to get ''zany,'' the worse we feel for laughing at characters whose biggest collective flaw is that they don't realize the only reserved table that really matters is in Manhattan, at Elaine's.
Foremost among those worth feeling bad about in this tedious misfire is John Travolta, his head these days a round, pumpkin-colored pinata inside of which lie secrets we'll never crack about why he's making the movies he's making. (A Lucky guess: He hoped a reunion with Ephron would result in the kind of improbable success the duo had four years ago with Michael.) Travolta plays weatherman Russ Richards, in debt because unseasonably balmy winter weather has stalled sales at the snowmobile dealership that's his off-camera business. Desperate for cash, he conjures up a scheme with his lotto lady, Crystal Latroy (Lisa Kudrow), to rig the numbers. They do and nothing goes right after that.
It's old news in an Ephron project that a woman like Crystal is conniving, crude, or nutty a persona Kudrow, with that sweetly loopy Friends timing of hers, can do while buffing her nails. But it's new news that every actor loses in Lucky Numbers, ill-served by the director's rhythmless pacing, her muddy visual sense, and her insistence on reducing characters to caricatures. If Bill Pullman, as a dim cop (a persona he can do while flossing), escapes with slightly more dignity than filmmaker Michael Moore, in a rare display of feature acting, it's because Moore must play a fat, slow, shuffling, wheezing, compulsively masturbating cousin of Crystal who keels over in asthmatic shock (hilarious, no?) in a grimy motel since the woman is too shrewish (and too busy watching Happy Days) to toss the man his inhaler. Harrisburg, Pa., this blindered movie cackles, is the meanest place on earth. D