Studio: Docurama Films (Originally made by Big Beach and broadcast on HBO)
Original Airing: 2010
Length: 1 hour 22 mins
Genre: Lottery Documentary
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Rating: Not Rated (Appropriate for all ages)
Directed and Produced By: Jeffrey Blitz
Release Date: April 26, 2011
Rating: 3 ½
You’d think that Lucky, a documentary about people who win major lottery jackpots, would be an exciting and uplifting experience. After all, most of us have shared the momentary excitement of scratching a lottery ticket and having that fantasy of winning millions and living happily ever after. The reality, unfortunately, is a different story. And Lucky, which is a fine, well-made and worthy documentary, winds up ranking as one of the most deeply disturbing films I’ve ever seen. I’ll try to explain a bit more in depth in the next paragraph, but this will involve spoilers. If you want to have a completely fresh experience, you should skip this next paragraph and move on to the rest of the review.
SPOILERS WARNING HERE – ONLY READ THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM OR DON’T MIND KNOWING WHAT HAPPENS. Lucky primarily consists of interviews and coverage of 6 people, 5 of whom have won large lottery payouts of varying levels. First we meet Verna, a Delaware woman who expresses a serious gambling addiction in the way that she throws money at the state lottery each day. She builds her day around calling for the numbers, buying tickets, working out systems of picking numbers, etc. At one level, she seems to be aware of what she’s doing, but her entire life is clearly aimed at trying to somehow win the big prize. The irony that she’s reaching for a random number completely escapes her. Next we meet Quang, a Nebraska employee of Con Agro who participates in a group Powerball win that nets him 22 million dollars. Quang’s story is the most uplifting one we see here – he’s a working class Vietnamese immigrant whose personal and family values seem to be unchanged by his fortune. As we initially see him, he and his family are still living in the same small place (while building a new home) and the one major change he has made is that he’s asked his wife to retire from the jobs she was working so she can focus on their children and grandchildren. If the whole documentary just focused on this family, you’d walk away with a much warmer and fuzzier feeling – but Quang’s family is the exception, not the rule. We then meet James, a disturbed Illinois man who impulsively spent his last dollar on a lottery ticket and won 5.5 million dollars. Lucky does not duck from the fact that James has some serious issues rising from the death of his parents and his own inability to make his own family. (His best friend and manager admits on camera that James has reverted back to something like a child’s personality rather than an adult one.) We see James undergo a mild transformation on camera from a nearly homeless and ragged state (at his nadir, he was living in his parents house with a large number of stray cats with no water, no power, etc.) to something a bit more cleaned-up. Once he’s given the ability to wash up, get a shave and a haircut, and get some new clothes, he actually seems presentable. And he seems to make a good choice in having his friend manage his money – the guy actually looks out for him as best he can. But it’s clear James is not completely together upstairs. The next family we meet, the married couple of Kristine and Steve, should be the happiest of the movie. This couple won 110 million after taxes in a Pennsylvania lottery, catapulting themselves and their children into a completely different lifestyle. When we first meet them, they’re still struggling to grasp what has happened. Outwardly, they still seem to be about the same, and their kids are still relatively normal, but there are hints of trouble – where their former close friends admit to envying their riches and feeling they have nothing in common with them anymore. (There’s also a mention that they have been warned to have bodyguards for their kids to head off the possibility of a kidnapping.) We move on to Robert, a mathematician who won 22 million dollars in the California lottery. Robert also seems relatively normal for someone who’s hit that jackpot. He talks about having the fantasy of buying the Lambourghini before actually winning the money and realizing the reality would be very different. He mentions having left his day job but otherwise having kept his family life the same – seeing the lottery winnings as an early retirement cue. The final major focus of the film is Buddy, a Pennsylvania firefighter who won 16 million dollars and famously squandered every penny of it. Interviews with his friends and acquaintances reveal a tragicomedy of errors, as Buddy goes on bizarre spending binges and winds up with nothing to show for it. Just when you think that the film has reached a conclusion, we’re shown an update on all 6. Verna’s life is unchanged – she continues to live in the hope that one day she’ll win the big payout. Quang’s life has changed a bit – in that he’s managed to have a small neighborhood built for himself and his family, as well as a house back in Vietnam for the family there. Quang continues to be the most well-adjusted of the winners, in that he’s still relatively unchanged on the inside. James also seems relatively unchanged, but not in so positive a manner. A year later, we find him choosing to live in a cheap motel and spending his annual interest income on dining out, cat food for the stray cats at his manager’s scrapyard, and strippers. On the positive side, he’s still fairly clean and he seems happy. Kristine and Steve, as one might expect, have undergone a complete transformation from the unassuming family we first met. One year later, they’re living in a mansion in Florida with more largesse than they could have imagined. While there are glimmers of their former selves (mother and daughter volunteer on a regular basis, the family makes frequent charity donations, etc), this family is almost completely unrecognizable. As for Robert, we find that his life has also changed – in that his early retirement idea resulted in his struggling for a long time to find a new identity for himself outside of work, and a sad result of the payout has been the departure of his wife. As we leave him, he has a new girlfriend and seems fairly happy tutoring kids and learning music (we are told he put up the downpayment for his music teacher’s house). The story of Buddy, on the other hand, ends on a complete downer. Our last images of him are clearly at the end of his life, where he’s living in a back garage shack in exchange for doing some deliveries, and he’s no longer able to function without an oxygen tank. Lucky also introduces us to a few other people on the periphery of these stories – including other workers at Con Agro who admit to playing the lottery on a regular basis after that big win, and a group of teachers who pool together and just miss out on a major jackpot. The movie ends with one of its most sobering thoughts. Not only do Americans spend more money on lottery tickets every year (with different percentages using random numbers or what they think are their special numbers), but in the face of the current rocky economic times, they’ve actually increased their investment. As you might expect, many people still hold out the hope that they could get that instant win in spite of all the odds.
Lucky was released on DVD last week, with a simple 1.85:1 transfer and a 2.0 English stereo soundtrack. There are no subtitles. A few special features are part of the presentation, including 4 deleted interview subjects, a text introduction to director Jeffrey Blitz, a text introduction to Docurama, and trailers for 4 other Docurama titles.
VIDEO QUALITY 3/5
Lucky is presented in a clean 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that dutifully shows off the variety of environments, situations and flesh tones seen in the film. Much of the film has a grungy look to it, but that’s the nature of the subject matter. There’s an understandably different look to the Florida update with Kristine and Steve, which again reflects the environment on display.
AUDIO QUALITY 3/5
Lucky is presented in an English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix that presents the dialogue and music in a clear and effective manner.
SPECIAL FEATURES 3/5
Lucky comes with a few special features, the first and best of which are a series of further vignettes dropped from the final film. Beyond that, we are presented with a pair of text introductions and 4 Docurama trailers for other titles in their catalogue.
Dung Tran (6 mins) – Dung is another one of the Con Agro Powerball winners, and like Quang, he won 22 million in a heartbeat. Like Quang, he speaks barely any English and appears not to have changed his internal values. He does relate a few interesting anecdotes. In one case, he mentions being turned down by a furniture store when trying to get things for his new house, only to have the store’s owner call him and beg him to return once they realized their mistake. In a more telling moment, he mentions that his first wife left him with their kids before he won the lottery, and that since the win, he has married a new wife and is having new children.
Ken Dikkersun/ (6 mins) – That slash mark is not a typo. Dikkersun is a “lottery psychic” who says he can pick winning lottery numbers through his own system. He says he changed his name to include the slash. Of course, if he’s so effective of a lottery psychic, why is he still living in a tiny little apartment???
Phillip Piña (9 mins) – Phillip is a New Mexico mechanic whose lottery win has not changed his daily life, at least at the point that we see him. He continues to work at his garage, but he shares some crazy letters he has received from people who want him to send them money.
Milt and Carlene Laird (7 mins) – This is another happy lottery winning story to balance things out. As he got to retirement age, Milt won the California Powerball, which more than made up for the financial collapse of the retirement plan he had spent his life building. We see the Lairds with their family, and at their vineyard.
Past those extras, we are presented with the following materials:
Filmmaker Bio – This is a quick text introduction to director Jeffrey Blitz.
About Docurama – This is a quick text introduction to the Docurama company (one I must add I have frequented over the past few years for several of their documentaries).
Docurama Trailers – Four trailers are presented for other Docurama DVDs: Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, Air Guitar Nation, A Crude Awakening and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.
There are no subtitles, unfortunately. However, a full chapter menu is part of the package.
IN THE END...
Lucky is a worthwhile film, and one I recommend you see. But that title is more ironic than you might think. Are all the people who win in this documentary really lucky? And what does it say that so many people spend so much money in the hopes of hitting the random number? Lucky doesn’t try to conclusively answer that question, but it does raise it – which in itself justifies my recommendation.
May 7, 2010