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Television review: 'Lucky' on HBO

Documentarian Jeffrey Blitz follows lottery winners to observe the effects of a big win. Daydreaming ensues. And maybe a wake-up too.

July 19, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Such is the seductive nature of the lottery that after watching "Lucky," an HBO documentary chronicling the many, and often sobering, effects winning a big jackpot can have on a person, it is difficult to resist the temptation to rush out and buy a ticket.

Never mind that statistically, one is almost as likely to win the lottery without buying a ticket or that most of the winners that director Jeffrey Blitz ("Spellbound," "The Office") chose to follow experienced at best mixed reactions to sudden wealth or that he includes, mercifully, the story of a woman who has spent a hundred bucks a day on tickets for 30 years with no big win.

The idea that one's life can be made perfect with a large infusion of cash is a difficult one to dispel. And that is not Blitz's intent. When not doling out fascinating facts about the lottery — both Jamestown and Washington, D.C., were funded with the help of a lottery — and tales of lotto irony and mischief, Blitz follows an admirably diverse group of people post-big win. Quang fled Vietnam with his wife and children by boat for a better life in America, which eventually included a $22-million win in the Nebraska state lottery. James, an eccentric undone by his parents' death, was living in filth and down to his last $3 when he won $5 million. Robert, a Berkeley mathematician, played only for the chance to daydream but won $22 million anyway. And Kristen and Steve, a suburban New Jersey couple, are a very basic family who just happened to win $110 million.

Serving as backdrop and cautionary tale is Buddy, a former firefighter whose win and subsequent tailspin of extravagance and bankruptcy was picked apart by the likes of Bryant Gumbel and Geraldo Rivera. Now dependent on an oxygen tent and the kindness of old friends, the penniless and frail Buddy appears to have been literally sucked dry by his experience.

None of the more current winners seems to be following Buddy down the path of reckless spending, but all experience a sense of emotional and social dislocation. Kristen and Steve wind up dismayed by friends' envy and defection — according to Steve, anyone they knew who played the lottery seemed to feel entitled to the winnings, since it could just as easily have been their ticket that won as his. Theirs is the most predictable and consumer-aspirational of the tales — within a year, the two have quit their jobs and relocated to a posh community in Florida, where Steve has a garage full of sports cars and they say they fit in better than they did in New Jersey.

Robert left his job, got divorced and lost his identity before finding his way as a wealthy man, while James saw his win as a second chance at life, though one of his own still eccentric choosing. Only Quang seems to live in a state of perpetual delight and wonder at his good fortune — he built a compound of houses for his children as well as an enormous mansion for his extended family in Vietnam.

None of the stories is the stuff of dreams — after winning $110 million, Kristen and Steve's big vacation is to Las Vegas — and for every worry that is relieved by the new wealth, another takes its place. The notion that wealth equals happiness remains one of our favorite myths, and winning the lottery is seen by many as the truest form of love the universe can bestow.

Blitz doesn't necessarily argue with that, he just wants to point out that this love, like any other sort, is complicated. But if the tale of King Midas, the rise and fall of Silas Lapham, the later years of Howard Hughes or the McCourt divorce haven't yet taught us what we need to know about money, no clear-eyed documentary stands a chance. Just as lottery ticket sales increase in times of economic downturn, no doubt "Lucky" will ironically send many viewers to their nearest ticket vendors. Because, of course, if you or I won, it would be different.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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