Starring Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston • TLM Rating 2/4
“Lucky” serves up a slice of life. It’s the final slice with the fly on it that everyone tries to avoid but—in this metaphor, at least—cannot. The slice in question belongs to Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton), who is what some would affectionately refer to as an “old feller,” which is vastly different from a senior citizen or a geriatric. An old feller refuses aid of any sort and, with a strong sense of purpose, spites his age by ignoring it.
Lucky fills his days with routine and minor obstacles—a surefire recipe for daily satisfaction. Every morning, he performs a number of yoga exercises, one of which involves spinning around in a circle with his arms stretched out, like a child who has just discovered the sensation of dizziness and is looking to recreate it. The physical benefit of these exercises is unclear, but that’s not the point—after all, when he’s done, he lights up a cigarette. Lucky spends the rest of his day moseying around his small, middle-of-nowhere town, as if he has all the time in the world.
What allure the film has is entirely derived from the infinitely watchable Harry Dean Stanton, who carries no falsehoods into the titular character. Whether he’s picking fights with guys half his age, trading war stories in a rusty diner or just playing “Red River Valley” on the harmonica, it’s as natural a performance as you’ll see all year. To fill in the gaps are a number of other character actors, as well as David Lynch—yes, that one—playing a kooky local heartbroken by the mysterious absence of President Roosevelt, his pet tortoise.
Without knowing anything else, this could very well sound delightful. A folksy setting, seasoned actors, quirky characters, missing tortoises—what more could you want? Regrettably, the writing and direction is consistently cliché and white-bread, undercutting Stanton and the casts’ best efforts at every turn. The film is directed by a notable character actor in his own right, John Carroll Lynch, which might explain why the film is filled with so many artificial “actor moments,” such as when the camera sits longingly on a face as it recites an overwritten monologue. Now might be a good time to mention that the film is written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, two actors.
There’s a particularly bad episode where a woman inexplicably shows up at Lucky’s home while he’s watering a cactus in his underwear—a great image, I admit—only for them to watch Liberace videos and have Lucky make a forced confession. It’s the kind of telegraphed scene that feels so creaky and stiff, you might think it some kind of elaborate hostage video. A pivotal moment at a party where Lucky breaks into a Spanish ballad is supposed to elicit emotion—it’s an almost literal swan song—but it comes off as hokey. I hate to say it, but it reads like a commercial for a retirement home that highlights the many enjoyable activities available to its residents.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that this is Stanton’s last film (he died in September at the age of 91). As such, there is an emotional layer present that wouldn’t exist otherwise, especially to movie fans who can look back fondly on Stanton’s deep filmography—”Ride in the Whirlwind” and “Wild at Heart” are among my favorites. As with Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” it’s satisfying to see a high-caliber actor, so often in a supporting role, get one last go in the spotlight before the big show is over. Unlike “Nebraska,” “Lucky” lacks any significance or honest reflection on life’s third act, and banks entirely on the presence of its lead for interest, which can only amount to so much.