LFF 2017: Lucky Review
Harry Dean Stanton’s final leading film role (and criminally, only his second ever leading role in his entire career) should be a cinematic milestone - and due to the themes of existentialism and mortality that run rampant throughout Lucky, it feels that it was engineered to be a triumphant swan song. Despite the rapturous acclaim, I can’t help but feel audiences have warmed to it because of its existence as a designated cinematic epitaph to the legendary character actor. The film’s heart is in the right place, yet its attempts at blending the earthly absurdism of Jim Jarmusch with the more heightened surrealism of David Lynch fell flat for me, with a reliance on comedic non-sequiturs that have more in common with Napoleon Dynamite than Stranger Than Paradise.
Stanton stars in the titular leading role as Lucky, a 90 year-old man facing off against old age. He’s settled into a daily routine, waking up with yoga and attempts to stay healthy - all the while smoking countless packs of cigarettes a day. After suffering a fall, a visit to the doctors informs him the opposite of his fears; he is a medical anomaly, perfectly healthy despite his chain smoking, and giving up now is more likely to do damage. From here, Lucky goes about his daily routine as normal, but his interactions with the local townsfolk and his less than sunny disposition on life itself both suffer as a result.
The existential pondering of life in Lucky is presented in a manner that walks an uneasy tightrope between being overly simplistic and queasily quirky. Director John Carroll Lynch, a recognisable character actor in his own right, does know how to get great performances from his cast- but the screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja does mean that they are all fighting an uphill battle to give dialogue readings that don’t sound like rejected lines from a film like Napoleon Dynamite.
Some of the strange comedic elements work; David Lynch plays Howard, Lucky’s best friend, whose battle to find his missing tortoise President Roosevelt (yep, that’s the name of the tortoise) is so quintessentially Lynchian, it can’t help but raise a smile every time it's mentioned. This subplot manages to be hilarious, building up to a climactic gag of such magnificence, it feels like the rest of the film was reverse engineered around it. But also, this narrative strand does something the rest of the film never achieves as successfully - exploring existential themes in a way that’s funny, without diluting the seriousness.
Elsewhere, there is a sense of quirkiness that feels overly forced. The film’s comedy mostly relies on seeing Lucky’s bad behaviour, which doesn’t feel massively removed from a film like Bad Grandpa albeit with surrealist overtones, as opposed to scatological ones. A recurring gag of him heckling the C-word at some unseen local landmark, or a central set piece like threatening to fight a lawyer, keep on detracting from the film’s attempts to offer a more thoughtful approach to reflecting on life. Despite the narrative description on paper, an Ozu film this is not.
In the lead role, Harry Dean Stanton is as reliable and quietly iconic as ever, it’s just a shame the material tries to forge an oddball comic persona that doesn’t seem an ideal fit for the legendary actor. There are plenty of laughs to be had, as well as a moving final scene deserving of a better film, but Lucky still feels like a disappointment. Harry Dean Stanton was a talent that will never be forgotten, but the chances are, once the hype from the festival circuit dies down, this film will be.