“Romanians are bad at making movies. We have such a beautiful country, but they only show doom and gloom,” whines Pompiliu (Alexandru Papadopol) in the shaggy, summery comedy “Two Lottery Tickets.” Meant as a playful jab toward the Romanian New Wave movement that has put the country on the cinematic map, local audiences might have found a little bit of truth in writer/director Paul Negoescu’s script as they were clearly ready for something different. A smash hit upon release in Romania in 2016, the film has taken a long way around in crossing the Atlantic, but “Two Lottery Tickets” should mark a refreshing change of pace for arthouse aficionados searching for an alternative from the country’s usually more austere, realist, and ponderous fare.
They say that more money means more problems, but Dinel (Dorian Boguță) already has enough to worry about before he even gets a winning lottery ticket in his hands. With barely a few dollars to his name, and his wife abroad in Italy shacking up with a new man, he’s stumped about how to get her back. His drinking buddy Sile (Dragoș Bucur), however, sees money as the solution to his woes, which not coincidentally, are tied to his numerous gambling debts. Ready to bet on almost anything, he quickly draws Dinel and Pompiliu into buying a ticket for the national lottery. They’ve got nothing to lose except a few more dollars they’d probably fritter away on more drinks, but then something unexpected happens — their numbers hit. It’s the miracle they’ve been waiting for, but there’s just a slight problem in collecting the €6 million prize: the ticket’s in Dinel’s fanny pack that was stolen by a couple of thugs visiting neighbors in his building. The three losers quickly turn amateur sleuths as they hunt down the crooks in a slacker odyssey that will take them from their small village all the way to Bucharest.
In no particular rush to get anywhere fast, Negoescu sets these characters loose in a handful of comedic tableaus that owe much to the starch dry comedy of Aki Kaurismaki. The film’s second act is spent largely in Dinel’s apartment complex, as the trio tries to find clues about the petty thieves that robbed him. It turns out the Dinel’s neighbors include no shortage of stoners, clairvoyants, and prostitutes, with each encounter turning into its own mini-sketch comedy. That’s the tone for much of the picture as the hunt for their elusive fortune eventually turns into a road trip to the big city, even as their resources — gas, money, pre-paid cellphone reception — grow more meager by the minute. The journey down the asphalt road also has a faint ring of “The Wizard of Oz,” as each of these characters has a bit of growing up to do. Dinel must earn the courage to finally confront his wife over her infidelities, the womanizing Sile must learn the limits of his charm, while the conspiracy theorist Pompiliu could use a dose of reality. It’s all very low-key, and Negoescu is wise enough to know that it’s just as likely Dinel, Sile, and Pompiliu won’t actually learn anything from their experience.
The breeziness of Negoescu’s approach sometimes disguises the gags he’s building in the background. In one particular sequence as Dinel, Sile and Pompiliu stand outside a police station, a cop cuffs a suspect to a pipe that’s not fully anchored, allowing him to easily slip away and escape as the scene ends. Unfortunately, the filmmaker misses opportunities too, such as a moment when Dinel enthusiastically has a piece of “cake” from his stoner neighbors that’s clearly a weed brownie. But the expected payoff of an unexpectedly high Dinel getting into some kind of shenanigans never arrives. Negoescu also continues his light dig at Romanian cinema as Pompiliu complains about an “awfully boring” movie he watched about a couple of guys moving drugs from Constanta to Bucharest that sounds a lot like Cristi Puiu’s debut feature “Stuff and Dough” (which also just happened to star Alexandru Papadopol). It might be one of the most niche, arthouse cinema jokes ever inserted into a film, but it’ll put a smile on the face of a certain strain of international movie fans.
Indeed, there are more chuckles than deep belly laughs in “Two Lottery Tickets.” Aided by the sun-kissed cinematography of Ana Draghici, Negoescu’s charmer plays out as a gentle, ambling, misadventure with three guys who work really hard to make their luck run out. On second thought, maybe this isn’t so different than the rest of the Romanian New Wave after all. [B]
“Two Lottery Tickets” will arrive in select theaters and virtual cinemas on May 21.