”Lucky Numbers” director Nora Ephron says her new movie is a dark comedy about two of America’s favorite pastimes: television and greed. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from Paramount’s advertising campaign, which makes the John Travolta/ Lisa Kudrow lottery rigging caper seem more bright than brutal. In fact, Ephron — who’s best known for the upbeat romantic comedies ”Sleepless in Seattle” and ”You’ve Got Mail” — says the studio’s marketing approach is off base. ”I think it’s wrong,” she says. ”I’ve been a broken record saying, What are you afraid of? This is the movie. The film is dark — it’s not ‘Fargo’ dark, but it is darkish.” Paramount, for its part, disagrees. ”We don’t think the film is dark,” says Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive VP of publicity at Paramount. ”We think it is a very funny comedy, and we’re selling it that way.”
But it was the mean spirited characters (especially Kudrow’s alter ego, whom Ephron cheerfully describes as a ”psychopath”) and less than wholesome plot involving fraud, sex, and murder that first attracted Ephron to Adam Resnick’s (”Cabin Boy”) screenplay. In the story of Russ Richards (Travolta), a small time celebrity weatherman who with the help of his hard as nails girlfriend Crystal (Kudrow) and a sleazy strip club owner (Tim Roth) hatches a scheme to rig the Pennsylvania state lottery, Ephron saw an opportunity to comment on America’s dual fascination with fame and money. ”I make a lot of movies about people who want to fall in love, but there are just as many who would rather get rich,” she says.
Money is the primary interest of both Russ and Crystal, whose affair is anything but romantic. The pair begin as hostile sexual partners, and the relationship only grows nastier as their scheme spirals out of control. ”This [is] not a romantic movie,” Ephron insists. ”It doesn’t have a romantic bone in its body.” But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from watching the TV ads, which don’t clearly depict the lack of affection between Russ and Crystal. The theatrical trailer provides a better representation of the film’s ”romance,” showing several of Crystal’s withering retorts and Russ’ self absorbed musings. Still, these clips might not be enough to prepare audiences, who are no doubt expecting another of Ephron’s patented mismatched love stories.
Viewers might also be taken aback by the film’s violence, which is barely shown in the ads. The trailer does feature a brief shot of a dead body being tossed over a bridge but doesn’t include the gunplay or the chase sequence that figure prominently in the last half of the movie. And neither the theatrical nor TV trailers show one of the film’s major supporting characters, Dale (Michael Rapaport), a thug who cheerfully breaks legs (and heads) with his beloved collection of baseball bats. Fitzpatrick, however, says the studio has prepared numerous ad spots, some of which may include Dale, or at least hint at the movie’s more intense moments.
But whatever the ads do or do not show, two big questions remain: Will people line up at the box office beginning Oct. 27? And if they do, will they feel deceived by the film? Some think the answer to the first question could be positive. ”Comedies seem to be hitting their mark recently, and Travolta draws interest, so him starring in a comedy sounds very good,” says Dan Marks, executive VP for AC Nielsen/ EDI. But as ”Battlefield Earth” proved, viewers aren’t willing to follow Travolta everywhere, particularly when he’s playing the nebbish instead of the cool hero. Variety critic Todd McCarthy provides an answer to the second question in his negative review: ”For a mainstream comedy, [the film] develops a notably harsh tone.” Adds EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum: ”Harrisburg, Penn., this blindered movie cackles, is the meanest place on earth.” Audiences may be left wondering, Where’s nice guy Tom Hanks when you really need him?