The Romanian New Wave – a cinematic current that arguably kicked off with Cătălin Mitulescu's 2004 short film “Trafic” and still seems to be going strong – has a reputation for dour miserabilism. It’s a wildly unfair generalization, but also somewhat predictable, given that international critics’ interest in the Romanian cinema of the new millennium was solidified by the one-two punch of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005) and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Both films made a splash at Cannes, and both are relentlessly bleak stories about the dehumanizing absurdity of life in modern Romania, before and after the 1989 Revolution.
However, Romania’s reputation as a purveyor of a uniquely dismal cinematic realism was always an oversimplification. Lăzărescu, after all, is something of a coal-black comedy, albeit one so arid and bitter that it often barely registers as such, especially for the international viewer. Indeed, the films of the Romanian New Wave are often quite funny, but it is an Eastern Bloc sort of funny, built on a sturdy foundation of post-Soviet pessimism and colored by the idiosyncrasies of Romania’s national identity. That character is exemplified by Corneliu Porumboiu’s marvelous satire 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) – one of the great international comedies of the 2000s – and was recently heightened to strikingly grotesque levels in Radu Jude’s meta-comedy, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018).
Accordingly, one of the most notable things about writer-director Paul Negoescu’s new film, Two Lottery Tickets, is how light and fluffy it proves to be, at least relative to most New Wave comedies. Formally speaking, Negoescu’s latest feature – his second as a director, but the first to be distributed in the U.S., almost five years after it became a modest hit in Romania – is firmly ensconced in the stylistic conventions of the New Wave. All the hallmarks are there: the long static shots, the fastidious compositions, and the keen attentiveness to the grubby texture of life on Romania’s sagging margins. In spirit, however, Two Lottery Tickets feels more like an eccentric hybrid of the Coen Brothers and Richard Linklater – part darkly comic fiasco, part languid summer hang-out film. The humor is dry, but not acidic, and the film thrives on a scruffy, good-natured attitude that generally regards its characters as harmless buffoons who deserve neither weal nor woe (at least in the cosmic sense). The whole affair is, in essence, a shaggy-dog story, the kind of amusingly pointless, meandering tale that its pitiable non-heroes will likely be telling with various embellishments over shots of țuică for years to come.
Dinel (Dorian Boguta) is a timid, unassuming auto-body-shop worker in a small Romanian town. His wife, Gina, is presently living in Italy, where the job market is apparently better – although what exactly she does for her mobbed-up boss is distressingly unclear. Anxiety over this long-distance relationship is exacerbating Dinel’s financial troubles, although his flinching, pushover nature isn’t doing him any favors, either. (In the film’s first scene, a dissatisfied customer indignantly refuses to pay for what he views as substandard repairs, obliging Dinel to miserably beg the man to at least cover the cost of his materials.) His only friends appear to be easygoing handyman Vasile aka “Sile” (Dragos Bucur) and cynical civil servant Popmpiliu (Alexandru Papadopol). When they aren’t working, the trio sit around at the neighborhood corner store, which doubles as a betting parlor. They drink and smoke while Sile wagers (poorly) on football matches and Pompiliu reads the paper and mutters conspiracy theories. In terms of their personalities and respective roles in their inertia-driven friendship, the threesome feel like the long-lost Carpathian cousins of Bill, Boomhaur, and Dale from King of the Hill – sans the presence of Hank Hill’s level-headed authority.
One dusty summer day, seeing that his friend is in an unusually disconsolate mood, Sile cajoles Dinel into playing the national lottery. He offers to purchase the ticket and split the winnings, if Dinel will just pick the numbers, although the penniless Sile is obliged to borrow from Pompiliu to cover the cost of said ticket. A few days later, the friends are astonished to discover that their numbers have won the $6 million jackpot. After some heated, impromptu negotiations regarding Pompiliu’s financial claim on the winnings, they agree to split the money three ways. There’s just one hitch: The same day that Dinel bought the ticket, a pair of menacing strangers relieved him of his fanny pack just outside his apartment building. He didn’t think much of this humiliating incident at the time – just another entry in a litany of indignities – but he now realizes to his horror that the winning lottery ticket was nestled inside the stolen pouch.
Thus begins a lightly farcical odyssey in which the hapless trio attempt to track down and recover the missing ticket, often through questionable amateur detective work. After Dinel’s naïve pleas to the local police department reach an inevitable dead end – in a scene that concludes with the film’s best sight gag – the three friends decide to pursue their own investigation. They start by knocking on every door in Dinel’s apartment building and making inquiries about the two mysterious thugs who nicked his fanny pack. Although Dinel recalls a few key details, such as the taller man’s Moldavian accent and their white car with Bucharest plates, this clumsy approach is about as fruitful as one would expect. The trio mostly encounters baffled pensioners, children, and potheads, as well as a Romani huckster who sidetracks them with promises of psychic clues. Things only get sillier, weirder, and more laughably pathetic from there.
Adapted from a short story by Ion Luca Caragiale, Negoescu’s script has a sneaky precision that belies its air of sad-sack summer misadventure. The same phrases and words are repeated by different characters in a manner that unavoidably recalls the Coens, and some of the film’s best moments occur when a plot point boomerangs back in an unexpected way. When Pompiliu fussily insists that it is illegal for Dinel to drive his father’s repainted vintage Dacia without changing the vehicle’s registration, it plainly foreshadows a pitfall for the characters later in the film. However, it’s the uniquely absurd way that the threesome wriggle out of trouble with a traffic cop that really delights. (This sequence plays out like the improv-comedy version of a scene from Porumboiu’s masterful 2009 feature Police, Adjective.)
Negoescu’s adroit, self-assured direction is just as vital to the film’s peculiar comic charms. Favoring the static camera setups and medium-to-wide shots that are now a familiar part of Romania's cinematic grammar, he often arranges his actors in semi-naturalistic tableaus that allow him to cram quite a bit of action and reaction into the frame. Which isn’t to imply that Two Lottery Tickets is some Tati-esque symphony of motion: It’s a purposefully languid film that traffics in the kind of low-key absurdity that emerges when characters are fumbling around socially rather than physically. However, there always seems to be some amusing side business unfolding around the margins of the film’s carefully composed shots, drawing the eye here and there. As the charming but clueless Sile, Bucur is a key purveyor of this background humor, as his character is perpetually fiddling with props or allowing his attention to drift elsewhere. (Watch for the moment when he furtively sets an open carton of milk down on a stranger’s living-room floor.)
Despite the film’s well-polished comic and formal components, some elements of the story still seem a little half-baked. Key events are relegated off-screen, in what feels less like artful elision than jarring omission. At least one comic set piece is set up and then seemingly abandoned, perhaps as a concession to maintain the feature’s breezy 85-minute running time. (Also worth noting: The feature’s use of domestic violence as fodder for cringe comedy may be discomfiting to American viewers in a way that can’t be hand-waved away with appeals to “cultural differences.”) What’s more, the film’s dry humor and circular plot – it barely qualifies as a spoiler to reveal that these lovable losers basically wind up where they started – practically ensures that Two Lottery Tickets ends up feeling slight. It’s the kind of bummer comedy in which no one learns any lessons and nothing really changes. This ends up being both a weakness and a strength, however: Negoescu’s film might be a bit on the wispy side, but it goes down smooth, like a welcome swig of cheap beer on a hot August afternoon. In other words, it’s the kind of simple cinematic pleasure that’s worth enjoying on its own terms.
Two Lottery Tickets is now available to rent via virtual cinema from Dekanalog. Purchase a ticket between May 27 - June 11 and the proceeds will help support the Webster University Film Series.