Lottery Ticket has done a wonderful thing. It has successfully merged a ridiculous, high-concept studio idea with a nuanced, character-driven slice-of-life comedy. The result is one of the best comedies of the year—granted, a lackluster year for comedies thus far, but that shouldn’t diminish this film’s accomplishments.
Bow Wow and Brandon T. Jackson star as, respectively, Kevin and Benny. Kevin’s a straight-arrow bordering on obsessive-compulsive, with a job he loves at Foot Locker and thoughts of going to design school to become a shoe designer—assuming he can find a way to pay for it and still support the grandmother who raised him (Loretta Devine). Benny postures as wacky and irreverent, but he secretly dreams of simultaneously escaping the Atlanta projects and benevolently helping those he has grown up around do the same. They live in a housing project filled with colorful characters played by ringers like Charlie Murphy, Mike Epps, and Bill Bellamy.
For hilariously convoluted reasons I won’t spoil, Kevin manages to get on the bad side of project bully Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and get fired from his beloved job in one fell swoop. Feeling desperate and pathetic, Kevin—who describes the state lottery as a way to keep poor people down—decides to play the lucky numbers he got from a fortune cookie. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know what happens next: Kevin wins the lottery and has to hold on to the ticket and survive a three-day Fourth of July weekend before he can claim his winnings.
Once the secret’s out that Kevin won the lottery, he has to worry about more than Lorenzo. Local gangster Sweet Tee (Keith David in a great extended cameo) extends a $100,000 courtesy loan to Kevin for the weekend, sexpot Nikki Swayze (Teairra Mari) tries to make Kevin her “baby daddy,” and before long, Kevin starts to wonder who his real friends are.
What really makes this film shine is its emphasis on characters over story. The lottery ticket is a great hook, but the movie breezes through the expected beats (trying and failing to keep it a secret, eluding the bully who wants to steal the ticket) to get to deeper, more interesting subject matter about greed, the desire to flee the ghetto, and the importance of giving back. While that may sound like liberal pinko talk to some segments of the population, Lottery Ticket doesn’t make preachy political statements. It contextualizes its themes through its characters, all of whom—even the more ridiculous ones, like Bellamy’s gangsta rapper Du-Rag—manage to overcome their stereotypical roots and feel like real people.
But enough about grim themes and dark undertones. Lottery Ticket is not The Wire. Its second-biggest strength is how funny it is. Writer Abdul Williams wisely doesn’t go for cheap, easy punchlines. In the same way the film explores its themes, the humor is grounded in the characters’ personalities and individual conflicts instead of inane physical schtick. Bow Wow and Jackson have great best-buddy chemistry and natural comedic timing. Naturi Naughton appears as Stacie, a friend of Kevin’s who has long had a crush on him, and does solid work as the flustered “second choice.”
They don’t need bolstering from the supporting cast, but they get it, anyway. The sheer number of hilarious, sharply drawn supporting characters make the world of Lottery Ticket feel very lived-in and believable, even when it goes a few notches over the top. Everyone does great work here, including Terry Crews as Sweet Tee’s annoyed driver/bodyguard and Ice Cube as a Boo Radley-like hermit.
Lottery Ticket serves as an antidote for people who love good comedies. It doesn’t get so hung up on its wacky concept that it forgets to tell a good story populated by funny, interesting characters. More than that, it’s about something—like the best comedies, it has more on its mind than desperately trying to get the audience to laugh. In other words, it’s the anti-Date Night. Go see it.