American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Lucky Numbers," starring John Travolta as a TV weatherman who tries to rig the lottery, tells too much story at not enough energy. It should have been cut back and cranked up. Instead, it keeps introducing new characters until the plot becomes a juggling act just when it should be a sprint. And there's another problem: Is it intended as a comedy, or not? I ask because there are funny things in it, and then gruesome things, sad things and brutal things. Quentin Tarantino was able to cover that spread in "Pulp Fiction." But Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail") doesn't find a way. She has Travolta and Tim Roth from "Pulp Fiction," but they didn't bring their notes.
Consider a scene involving Lisa Kudrow and Michael Moore (yes, Michael Moore). Kudrow with the right material is one of the funniest actresses around; see her in "The Opposite of Sex" or "Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion." Here she plays a daffy model who draws the winning lottery numbers on TV. Moore is her sad-sack cousin, recruited to front as the purchaser of the winning ticket. He has asthma. When he won't tell her where the ticket is, she bounces on his chest until he has an asthma attack, and then won't give him his inhaler.
Up to a certain point this could be funny (it doesn't sound funny, but trust me). The movie takes it beyond that point, until we want to cringe. Ephron doesn't actually show the poor guy's tongue turning purple, but Kudrow can't make the payoff anything but pathetic, and neither could any other actress. When you add in the rest of the movie's violence, it looks like a black comedy that needed to be either blacker or funnier, instead of each approach undercutting the other.
Travolta and Kudrow work at a TV station managed by Ed O'Neill. Both men are having affairs with her, which makes her a two-way conduit of knowledge, among other things. Travolta is in debt because his snowmobile business is failing (it's the warmest winter in years). He and Kudrow plot with Tim Roth, the owner of a strip club, to rig the lottery, and the plan works, up to a point. But then so many characters want a cut of the action that, Travolta complains, he'll be back in debt again.