Sunny Holiday (Jon Gries) sings karaoke. He dreams of a real show business career. Or rather, he dreams of living a star’s life, complete with limos and beautiful bejeweled babes and maybe even an entourage in expensive costumes. But when Jackpot begins, Sunny is ways off from achieving his goal. As a first step, he’s decided to spend nine months “touring” dingy bars throughout the vast U.S. West, competing in karaoke contests. This means lots of driving between bars, and even when he wins, he’s only walking out with piddly cash prizes or household appliances. On occasion, he goes home with one of the women who turn out for the contests.
Such triumphs, fleeting as they are, don’t quite sustain Sunny’s faith that someday, he will be recognized for the artist he knows he is. He’s not a bad singer, but he is, after all, doing karaoke. He’s rewarded not for demonstrating creativity, but, to the contrary, for imitating someone else’s performance. So Sunny’s frustrated, even if he does get a little “groupie” action from time to time. Plus, life on the road gets to be hard and lonely, especially when he starts thinking about his estranged wife Bobbi (Daryl Hannah) and their young daughter, which he does whenever he gets in his pink Cadillac and plays a tape that reminds him of what used to be home.
Not surprisingly, Sunny finds some solace in his relationship with his manager. Sunny and Les Irving (Garrett Morris) are longtime friends, able to communicate in half-thoughts and glances. Though they may not voice it exactly, as soon as you see them, gazing not at each other but out the car windows, you know they feel a deep loyalty to each other, no matter their squabbles. They also happen to share that grand dream of stardom, with Les quite willing to let Sunny play the out-front heartthrob, while he stands offstage, supporting his man, coaching and encouraging him before and after performances. These performances are staged as big deals, with obscure lights peeping through the darkness of whatever bar they’re in, as Sunny strides to the stage: he always needs a long, clear, dramatic-entrance shot to the stage, and insists that Les work out this “runway” ahead of time. And as potentially life-changing “events,” these performances are enhanced by the fact that the film has been shot with Sony’s Cine Alta digital camera, a small and inexpensive format that shoots at something approximating film’s usual 24 frames per second, and allows widescreen (this is the first theatrical release to use this technology, but word is that George Lucas is using it for the next Star Wars installments). Cinematographer M. David Mullen and Mark and Michael Polish put this technology to elegant and edgy use: the imagery in Jackpot is gorgeous, detailed, crisp, and just slightly heightened, in a video-grainy-grim kind of way.
But no matter how close success might seem, second to second, there’s never really a doubt in this film that Sunny and Les are beating their heads against various walls. Les does his best to inject practical concerns into their daily life, but there is a romance on the road, and the truth is, he’s often as willfully misguided as his buddy. This isn’t to say that Les is unaware of what he’s doing, much less that he’s stupid: at one point Sunny suggests they run from a scene that looks like serious trouble (one of Les’s potential “dates” has passed out in the bar bathroom), and Les must bring his friend back to earth: “I’m black,” he reminds him, gently. “If I run away from anywhere man, I’m guilty.” It appears that Les is a dreamer in his own way, but is possessed of a more acute sense of limits. He’s not quite ready to give himself over completely to the fantasy, in large part, the film suggests, because the fantasy is not so readily available to him as it is to Sunny.
In order to survive in their current, non-star life, the two men sell jugs of liquid soap out of the back of the car, sometimes to those same ladies with whom Sunny spends his post-show nights (for instance, Janice, played by Peggy Lipton). But they both know this salesman stuff is only temporary, that they will hit the “jackpot.” Cutting back and forth between this dreary present and scenes that appear to be lodged in Sunny’s past, the film draws emotional connections between Sunny’s feelings of grandeur and despair: as he remembers talking with Bobbi in a diner, he’s trying to convince her of the viability of his commitment to nine months on the road. She’s not having it. She sees this “dream” as Sunny’s inability to grow up or, more specifically, grasp his responsibilities as a father, if not a husband, and that he’s sending her weekly lottery tickets, as a stand in for actual “child support”—as with his own career and even his sense of self, his rationale is that when he does hit that number, the payoff will be major-big-time, and Bobbi will realize, at last, just how right he’s been all along. Until then, however, he’s got a lot of explaining to do. And he avoids doing it at all costs.
In his own mind, Sunny’s sad circumstances are ideal breeding grounds for his becoming a respected country-western artist. He models his signature style and attitude on his idol, George Jones, and takes Jones’ “Grand Tour” as his most effective, most winning “closer.” Then again, because karaoke competitions don’t always allow you to perform the material you want, Sunny is often stuck doing songs he’s less fond of, for instance, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” In such instances, Les spends a lot of time massaging his wannabe’s ego, suggesting that he might do well to stretch this night, or some other serviceable fiction (during one of these episodes, “Grand Tour” has already been selected by an opponent, played by the slyly cast Mac Davis).
At such times, Sunny is almost sympathetic, though on the verge of being whiny. At other times, he’s seriously creepy, as when he goes home with Cheryl (Crystal Bernard) and, while she’s nursing a headache, steals up to her adolescent daughter’s bedroom. This girl, Tangerine (Camillia Clouse), appears to him in the kitchen, her pink nightie short-shorts adorned with fluffies: she’s jailbait, but almost painfully unaware of that, wanting to emulate her mom (she asks Sunny, “Are you my mom’s new boyfriend?”) but also only vaguely sensitive to her own astounding sexuality. When Sunny comes to her bedroom, she asks him first off to sign her high school yearbook (using her pink pen with feathers), because that will allow her to remember makes their impending, “special” encounter. Sunny’s selfishness is almost stunning here: it’s as if he can’t see who he is or what he’s doing, but can only function as a version of his dream-self.
Les understands this as a very bad idea, and acts as Les’s conscience, to a point. Their exchange at this moment clarifies their roles and their codependence. As the film winds along its long road, Sunny continues to screw up in various ways, and Les picks up pieces as best he can. Living inside a slow-motion buddy movie, they can’t help but need one another.