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'Lucky': a look at the lives of lottery winners, on HBO

Jul 19, 2010, 8:16 am

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After the Big Win

Airs tonight at 9 p.m. ET

If it happens to you — and the odds are a mere 1 in 195 million that it will — what then?

"Do you become what you dreamed you would?" asks Mike Pace, known to millions of lottery ticket buyers as the man in the tuxedo who was the longtime announcer of the Powerball drawing. "Or do you become what you most deeply, secretly are?"

Director Jeffrey Blitz's enticing new documentary, "Lucky," which airs Monday night on HBO, tries to figure that out. Blitz interviews several people who found themselves irrevocably transformed by big lottery wins. Some were smart about the money and some weren't (one squandered it all), but all in some way long for — even mourn — the people they used to be. They've become alien life forms.

Despite its 90-minute length, "Lucky" never fully penetrates the world these winners live in, but it does tell us something about what it feels like. Although it is frank in portraying the darker side of the dream, it may also please lottery proponents. "Lucky" respects the entertainment value and very American history of lotteries, even among addicts such as Verna (the film is not fond of last names), a working mother in Delaware who throws $70 to $100 a day at fate, basing her lottery numbers on superstitious metrics and other magical thinking. "Lucky" understands that Verna is buying a fantasy in increments, thus there's nary a word about what some call a tax on the poor.

Big winners such as Quang Dao — who had nothing when he and his family escaped Vietnam by boat in the 1970s — can't help but transmit that very particular brand of capitalistic patriotism and glee that comes with catching the brass ring.

Quang, who with seven coworkers at a meatpacking plant in Lincoln, Neb., shared in the largest Powerball jackpot in history ($365 million in 2006), proudly shows off the quartet of McMansions he's building on the suburban prairie — a fenced compound where his children and grandchildren can surround him. Quang and his wife have a picture of their refugee boat etched into their custom-made fireplace hearth, and it's not very long before one or the other weeps at the profound literal and metaphorical journey from there to here. Their luck is almost frightening to consider; the Daos alone would have made a fine documentary.

But "Lucky" is crammed with other examples, which turns it into more of a survey and less of a portrait or a statement. Blitz's credits include a 2002 documentary about the National Spelling Bee ("Spellbound") that became a box-office hit; that film better explored its characters' personalities and emotions. It also had an easier narrative arc (a competition) to focus on.

But it is to Blitz's credit that he is able to get to his subjects at all, as scrupulous privacy is usually the first refuge for lottery winners, who are swamped with pleas from strangers. Though the breadth and diversity of the winners are fascinating, the movie drags as it tries to go beneath their prepared stories.

The most happy/melancholy story here is that of Kristine and Steven White, a New Jersey couple who won $110 million in 2004 from a Pennsylvania lottery ticket, who still live in the same house; their teenage son still works at his beloved fast-food job. Despite the Whites' humility and generosity (they love meeting with families of sick children to whom they offer financial aid), a neighboring couple tells Blitz how the Whites have changed and how awkward it feels to be around them.

The film reveals a common, woeful quality among these baffled multi-millionaires. When Blitz catches up to the Whites a year later, they've moved to a private compound in Florida, where Steve keeps a sportscar collection in a Garage Mahal next to their enormous house. Though the Whites put on smiles for the camera and exude what may indeed be true comfort, there's something unenviable, too.

They're lonely. They had to go where nobody knew where the money came from. But, as Kristine says: "I can't help it that it [happened to] me."

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