Someone once said, “It’s the good luck of other people that makes us dissatisfied with our own.” I have never considered myself to be lucky. I have always thought, “A little more drive, a little more pluck, a little more work—that’s luck.” But that kind of luck will never help me win the lottery.
The other day, I went to our local convenience store and noticed it sold 35 different lottery tickets. And that didn’t even count the Texas Lotto, the mega million, or power ball lotteries. As I looked at the various tickets I could buy, I realized I had never purchased a lottery ticket. The closest I came was, for a while, my work group decided to form a consortium of lottery participants to increase the odds of winning the Texas Lotto. And then we would share the wealth when we won. So, with all 20 of us contributing a dollar, our odds would decrease from one in 25,827,165 to 20 in 25,827,165. I contributed to the pot for a couple of weeks, but with those long odds, I decided I would rather spend my dollar on a Diet Mountain Dew. But my assistant worried I would be stuck working alone after the group won the grand prize, and she and the other 18 quit their day jobs. So, for several months, without my knowledge, she threw an extra dollar in the pot for me. Shocking, I know, but the work group never won a thing.
I have often heard the phrase about the lottery: “You can’t win if you don’t play.” Well, even though I don’t play, I still fantasize about what I would do if I did win the Texas Lotto or the mega million jackpot. I even wrote a short story about it once. Because of those fantasies, I have enjoyed several movies about the lottery and have learned a few lessons from them.
Here are three movies about winning the lottery, all based on actual events, and the lessons I learned from them (what follows has spoilers, so consider watching the films first!):
Lesson One: The maxim, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” is not always true. 29th Street[i](now streaming on YouTube) tells the true story of Frank Pesce, who was born lucky and remained so. He was lucky when his mother went into labor with Frank and went to the wrong hospital; the one she was supposed to go to burned down that night. He avoided the draft because of luck. And Frank had great success playing craps. Even bad luck turned to good when he was stabbed in his chest by his girlfriend’s overprotective brother, and the doctor sewing him up found he had a cancerous tumor that was curable because they had found it so soon. And so, no one who knew Frank was surprised when he was one of 50 finalists for the first New York state lottery.
But Frank worried his dad, who saw him getting involved with the mob as dangerous. He wanted Frank to enjoy an everyday life:
But Frank’s dad’s life was not as simple as a small patch of Kentucky bluegrass. His dad got in trouble with the mob and owed them $10,000. When Frank heard about the debt, he agreed with the mob leader to exchange his lottery ticket to cancel the debt.
And like the rest of his life, Frank’s luck continued, as his ticket won $6.2 million. But a fun twist at the end of the film resulted in canceling the debt and Frank being able to keep the winnings. So maybe being lucky is not so bad!
Lesson Two: It’s better to give (and more fun) than to receive. In It Could Happen to You[ii] (now streaming on HBO Max), Charlie Lang, a New York police officer, buys a single lottery ticket at his wife’s insistence. Later, he buys a cup of coffee at a local diner. Charlie had enough money to pay for the coffee but no money for a tip. So, he promises the waitress, Yvonne, half of any winnings from his lottery ticket. And if he doesn’t win, he will still return the following day with a tip.
Incredibly, Charlie’s ticket garners him and his wife $4 million. But, much to Charlie’s wife’s chagrin, Charlie still intends to give Yvonne half—two million dollars. He always wants to do the right thing, he reasons, and “a promise is a promise.”
While Muriel, Charlie’s wife, begins acquiring more things, Charlie and Yvonne give away much of what they won and have fun doing it. But unfortunately, the lottery eventually breaks up Charlie’s and Muriel’s marriage. And as part of the divorce proceedings, Muriel sues Charlie and Yvonne for the entire $4 million. Ultimately, the jury agrees with Muriel, leaving Charlie and Yvonne with nothing. But during all this, Charlie and Yvonne fall in love. In this scene, Charlie and Yvonne realize that money means nothing now that they have each other:
But like good karma, what goes around often comes around. When Charlie and Yvonne are at their lowest, a reporter masquerades as a homeless person, and they feed him dinner and give him some money to help him on his way, wishing they could give him more. Because of their caring, the reporter asks the paper’s readers to give Charlie and Yvonne a tip of even a dollar or two. Ultimately, the good people of New York reward Charlie and Yvonne with donations of over $600,000. Charlie and Yvonne learned what Winston Churchill once said: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Oh, and what happened to Muriel? Karma caught up with her, too. She married a man who drained her bank account and fled the country. Muriel spent the rest of her days living with her mother and working in a nail salon.
Lesson Three: Money doesn’t guarantee happiness; relationships do. In Jerry and Marge Go Large[iii] (now streaming on Paramount+), Jerry lives in a small, dying town and has always been good at numbers. One day, he looks at the odds on an ad for the “WinFall” lottery and discovers a flaw that assures him of winning. He starts small to test his formula ($2000) but loses $327. But he realizes he needs to increase his sample size to take luck out of the equation. So, he buys 8,000 lottery tickets the next time and wins $15,700.
Here is the trailer for the movie:
Jerry tries to keep his lottery activity from Marge, but she soon notices something is up. I love this conversation between Jerry and Marge, as they realize playing the lottery, for them, is more than just making money:
Jerry: We barely have enough money to retire on as it is, and this is no time to risk it.
Marge: Yes, it is.
Marge: It’s time to risk it because right now, we’re losing something that matters even more. I’ve waited 40 years for it to be just us, and so far, we kind of suck at it.
Jerry: We have Jeopardy.
Marge: Oh, that’s not a thing. Jerry! I wanna have fun. I wanna have fun. Let’s be a little stupid. Huh? We got married when we were 17, so we know how to do it.
Jerry: Well, that’s true.
Marge: We need something for us.
Soon Jerry and Marge are making tens of thousands each time they play. But instead of keeping the winnings for themselves, Jerry forms an investment company and lets all the townspeople participate. And the townspeople take their winnings, and instead of just buying things, they use them to improve the town and help those down on their luck.
Soon, though, an intelligent Harvard student figures out the lottery flaw and discovers Jerry and Marge. So the student tries to force Jerry out of playing the lottery, leading to this conversation:
Jerry: I realized that I wasn’t angry at you. I’m disappointed.
Student: Ah, you’re disappointed in me?
Jerry: No, not you. You’re insignificant. No, I was disappointed that I let a selfish kid like you get to me. I was always good at math, but it took a long time for me to figure people out.
Student: So, tell us, Jerry, what did you figure out?
Jerry: That the solution isn’t numbers. You told me that I was playing the lottery because I had nothing else. But the reason you won’t share the pot is because you have nothing else. You think being the smartest guy in the room is all that matters. But it turns out it’s this room that matters. All these bright, young people helping you get rich. How are you helping them? Guess you haven’t run the math on that.
When the lottery flaw becomes public, the state lottery commission is forced to discontinue the WinFall game, but not before Jerry, Marge, and their neighbors pulled in a cool $27 million.
Marge sums up the theme of Jerry and Marge Go Large: “It’s more than just a game to him. He finally got to use his gift to connect with people.”
All of us are fortunate to have talents and gifts. But their best use would be, like Jerry, to connect with others.
[i] 29th Street:
- Production Companies: JVC Entertainment Networks, Largo Entertainment, and Permut Presentations
- Director: George Gallo
- Screenwriter: George Gallo (based on the story by Frank Pesce and James Franciscus
- Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Danny Aiello, and Lainie Kazan
- Release Date: November 1, 1991
[ii] It Could Happen to You:
- Production Company: TriStar Pictures
- Director: Andrew Bergman
- Screenwriter: Jane Anderson
- Starring: Nicolas Cage, Bridget Fonda, and Rosie Perez
- Release Date: July 29, 1994
[iii] Jerry and Marge Go Large:
- Production Companies: Landline Pictures, Levantine Films, and Media Rights Capital (MRC)
- Director: David Frankel
- Screenwriter: Brad Copeland (based on the article by Jason Fagone)
- Starring: Bryan Cranston, Annette Benning, and Rainn Wilson
- Release Date: June 17, 2022