John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky is a film for character actors. Longtime character actor Harry Dean Stanton plays the titular character, and various character actors populate the rest of the cast. Even the director himself has a background as a character actor. They’re the actors you recognize but never really learn their names. Never the lead but often with plenty of lines and screen time. They are the unheralded talent that allows Hollywood to function.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the film tells the story of unnoticed people in an unnoticed town. The screenplay details characters, not events, with each scene existing to explore character rather than contribute to plot. If any plot exists, in the traditional sense, it could be summarized as “90 year old man comes to terms with his own mortality.” However, reworded ever so slightly, we have not a plot description but a character description: “a 90 year old man who is coming to terms with his own mortality.”
Lucky has an odd way of frequently suggesting that a scene will have a greater plot significance than it ends up having. At one point, a young waitress stops by Lucky’s home to check on him and they end up smoking pot and watching television. In another film this might initiate a story about their relationship. In Lucky, we just move on after she leaves. In another scene Lucky meets a grandmother at a Hispanic children’s birthday party and they appear to have some chemistry. He speaks Spanish well. But that’s the only time we see her. It’s as if we’re viewing a film from the perspective of a character actor: only individual scenes matter, while the totality of the plot is comparatively inconsequential.
It does not appear that Lynch tried to direct his actors much, instead leaning on their vast experience playing minor roles throughout the decades. For the most part this worked well, but two glaring exceptions stuck out. Beth Grant, as a bar owner, had a particularly cringe-worthy scene. Lynch really should have not just re-shot it a couple times, but reworked the dialogue as the script wasn’t doing her any favors. The more egregious performance was the only non-character actor in the whole film, famed director David Lynch (no relation). Perhaps the film would have worked better if David Lynch was behind the camera and John Carroll Lynch was in front of it.
Aside from the poor performances from Beth Grant and David Lynch, John Carroll Lynch does a good job with the film. Its subject matter—death—has a way of feeling profound when we apply it to ourselves or our loved ones, but not when we think about it in the abstract. Death is the inconvenient fact of life we try to avoid thinking about until we’re unwillingly confronted with it. If Lucky tried to deal with this subject exclusively as a weighty existential dilemma, it would have been a slog. Fortunately, the film uses humor to lighten this weight and acknowledge the absurdity of taking death too seriously.
Overall, Lucky is a good film that falls just short of its ambitions. The dialogue feels like the writers knew what they wanted to say but not quite how to say it. The humor is implemented at just the right times but not expertly executed. In many ways, Lucky shares similarities with Waiting for Godot. You keep waiting for something to happen, and just when you think something will happen, you get more meandering. The end result is a good, but not great, film.