Friday, November 24, 2017
It's sad to realize Harry Dean Stanton is gone. He died in September at 91. His heyday was in the 1970s and '80s, in movies like Dillinger, Alien, Wise Blood, and Repo Man. He found his best role in 1984 when he played a drifter in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. Stanton, who began his career as a bit player in the 1950s, was a lanky guy with a hangdog face and soft, brown eyes. He was the closest thing Hollywood had to a human coyote. He was once offered his own TV series but turned it down; he didn't want the success of the show to rest on his shoulders. Stanton was better suited to the fringes of the movie business, small parts, in and out, fast, almost unnoticed. A coyote. In recent years he became a kind of fetish figure for the same types who dig gnarly old survivors like Keith Richards and Johnny Cash. Lucky, though it's as lightweight as a greeting card, certainly won't hurt his reputation. Like the leather cowboy boots he wears in the movie, the Stanton vibe was made to last.
The movie has won awards and accolades from critics, but it's a fluff piece. First time screenwriters Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks give us a flimsy story about a codger named Lucky (Stanton) who is starting to feel the terrors of old age. He's healthy enough - only a pair of idiot writers would create a 90-year-old character who smokes a pack of cigs per day and have a doctor tell him his lungs are fine - but after an episode where he falls down in his kitchen, he acknowledges that there is a lot more life behind him than ahead of him. The method here is all quirky, indy self-consciousness: Lucky's refrigerator contains only three quarts of milk; his ashtray always has exactly three butts; the local bar, the local diner, the local store, are all too cute. We constantly hear "Red River Valley" played on a harmonica (by Stanton), until we're ready to cry uncle. Meanwhile, Lucky is brimming with ersatz wisdom. "There's a difference between lonely and being alone," he says. If that strikes you as deeply profound, maybe Lucky is the movie for you.
Director John Carroll Lynch, however, is tasteful, and he puts veteran cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt to good use, especially when Lucky is out in the desert, going on one of his many solitary walks among the cacti. And I liked David Lynch as Lucky's eccentric friend, Howard, all shook up because his pet tortoise ran away. Some will think Lucky is a nice meditation about those who quietly rage against the dying of the light, and some will be overly impressed by the way Stanton puts his scrawny old body on display. Yes, there was no vanity in the guy, and there's something admirable about an elderly actor who, as Stanton does here, appears in a movie either semi-nude or in his underwear. On the other hand, I got pretty tired of looking at Stanton's balls and armpits.
Stanton gives Lucky what he always gave to movies: his presence. He was never one who knocked the walls down with his acting. But it was always great to see him. When he popped up in a movie it was like recognizing an old friend in a crowd. This was a guy who could play an understanding father in John Hughes' Pretty in Pink, or appear in an episode of Laverne & Shirley as a seedy lounge singer named Johnny Velvet. He was believable every time, and he's certainly believable in Lucky. But it would be misleading to say he carries the movie on his own narrow shoulders, or makes it worth seeing. Lucky is just too pleased with itself, and we can almost feel the writers patting themselves on the back when they come up with a line of crap dialog like, "Realism is a thing." Ironically, they did come up with something good in Lynch's character, who pines for his lost tortoise, wants to leave all of his money to it, and solemnly promises to be there when the animal returns. Lynch has the best scene in the movie when he talks about how his tortoise, named "President Roosevelt," must have carefully planned his escape because it had something important to do. "That tortoise affected me," he says. For a moment we can see the movie that should've been made.