SXSW: ‘Lucky’ just isn’t as profound as its performances would like you to believe

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Lucky SXSW

Actors sure do like to make films that let actors do a lot of acting. That may sound like a tautological statement on the nature of performance-driven cinema, but there are times where the acting component of a film can be overestimated in its importance, particularly when the person directing is themselves an actor. Enter John Carroll Lynch to the director’s chair with his debut feature, Lucky. The performances are quite good, but the real question when one is crafting a story is whether those performances combine to share anything worthwhile with the audience. Lucky doesn’t quite hit that mark.

Harry Dean Stanton plays the titular Lucky, a ninety-year-old atheist living in a small Southwestern desert town. He has never married, has no kids, and lives alone, content to live his routine life of visiting a local diner and bar while keeping his mind limber through trivia game shows and crossword puzzles. One day, Lucky suffers a lightheaded fall, and his mortality becomes a focal point for all his interactions with the people in town, all of them his junior by at least a couple of decades.

What Lucky is clearly aiming to be is a meditation on the nature of growing old, confronting one’s own mortality, and the purpose one can have in being a singular, solitary person. In the end, it all comes across as a bit nihilistic, though it portrays such nihilism in a positive light, which is a refreshing take on what is often considered a bleak ideology. Meanwhile, as Lucky struggles with his own mortality—or doesn’t, depending on how you read the performance—characters about town monologue about their takes on life and purpose, often to a patronizing degree.

And unfortunately, this is where the film falls short. While the performances are uniformly competent from a wide range of character actors—Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, and Beth Grant to name a few—the content of their speeches is rarely as insightful as their poetic musings might lead you to believe. They don’t amount to much in their own right, and they barely constitute any sort of thematic arc for the film to cling to as Lucky works out his own ethos. Furthermore, characters will sometimes act in bizarre and unbelievable ways just to serve the purpose of the present monologue, and more than once I found myself asking why the hell such seemingly average people would have such subtly strange reactions.

Lucky isn’t aiming to be a plot-heavy film, and while its grasp on mood is conveyed through some good performances, it just doesn’t amount to much of a movie in the process. It’s a blip, unlikely to make you rethink your perspective on the aging process even as it tries to convince you that what it has to say is really artful and important.

And yet, while I don’t recommend Lucky, I do have to give special mention to one monologue by David Lynch in the middle of the film about the universal importance of a tortoise. In true Lynchian fashion, it is absurd and outlandishly hilarious, and that couple of minutes certainly makes the rest of the film worth sitting through. But maybe you should just wait until that scene is inevitably uploaded to YouTube.