Lucky ✮✮✮1/2

Walking Man

By Glenn Lovell

Part crusty character study, part desultory rumination on mortality and making the most of our allotted time, “Lucky” — starring the late Harry Dean Stanton in what may be the best performance of his storied career — is one of the year’s true finds, a spare but amiable slice-of-lifer about an argumentative old coot and his equally eccentric and opinionated circle of friends.

Lucky is 90, Stanton’s age (when this film was shot), and looks every bit of it. He’s the guy neighbors notice without really seeing but sorta miss when he’s gone. He resides just outside town and walks everywhere. He’s a walking fool, shuffling down country roads, cutting through back alleys, head down, determined. His ultimate destination? God only knows —

No matteLucky2r. John Carroll Lynch, here making an impressive directorial debut, and screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja know where Lucky is headed. They’ve done the advance scouting, taken the measure of the man, and, after considerable input from their star, have created one tough hombre, who, despite worrying dizzy spells, may not be ready to take stock.

Set in a small Arizona town on the edge of the desert, “Lucky” covers five or six days in the life of the title character, from his morning ablutions (sponge bath, cigarette, glass of milk, light yoga) to his afternoon and evening perambulations. Among his regular stops: the friendly neighborhood diner, the drugstore, and, after his game shows, Elaine’s bar, home to almost as many colorful archetypes as a Saroyan saloon.

Elaine (Beth Grant) is the Annie Oakley-sassy owner of the establishment. Paulie (James Darren, returning after a 16-year hiatus) is a onetime gigolo now happily kept by Elaine. Howard (a first-rate David Lynch, who directed Stanton in “Straight Story”) is Lucky’s strangely formal friend, who’s pining for the loss of his pet tortoise, Roosevelt. Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) runs Lucky’s favorite coffee shop; Loretta (Yvonne Huff) waitresses, anticipating Lucky’s every need, save one.

Also weighing in on topics ranging from Lucky’s health (surprisingly hale) to unexpected bravery to the impermanence of life are the town’s quietly exasperated doctor (a never better Ed Begley Jr.), a fellow veteran (Tom Skerritt, Stanton’s “Alien” costar), and an out-of-town attorney (Ron Livingston) who immediately draws Luclucky3ky’s ire. In the closest this film comes to physical violence, Lucky challenges the latter, young enough to be his grandson, to step outside for “fisticuffs.”

As solid as this ensemble is, “Lucky” belongs to Stanton, whose long list of credits includes “Cool Hand Luke,” “Escape from New York,” “Repo Man” and “Paris, Texas.” Stanton’s signature feistiness (think bantam rooster) cut with deadpan humor make him ideal for the role, which he wears like a pair of faded, loose-fitting dungarees, underplaying throughout. Indeed, the film is as much about Stanton the Hollywood fringe dweller as it is about an old man nearing the end and nervously weighing his options.

This is not surprising given that the script was tailored for Stanton by two longtime friends (Sumonja was the actor’s personal assistant for 15 years). Lucky dresses like Stanton (jeans, cowboy boots, khaki jacket), shares biographical data (like Stanton, he hails from Kentucky, never married, was a cook in the Navy, sings and plays the harmonica), and pedals pearls of wisdom that could only have come from Stanton (“There’s only one thing worse than awkward silence – small talk”).

The temptation of course is to say this is Stanton playing Stanton. While partially true, playing oneself authentically is a no small feat. (See Brando in “Last Tango in Paris.”) Stanton’s Lucky is at once maddeningly obstinate and achingly vulnerable. And like Stanton, who was never a narcissistic pretty boy, Lucky is comfortable in his own skin, no matter how wrinkled and saggy. The film opens with the character stripped, staring into his own red-rimmed eyes, sponging his alarmingly emaciated frame.

This is easily Stanton’s juiciest role since “Paris, Texas,” the Wim Wenders-Sam Shepard allegory about a man who one day wanders out of the wilderness, ready to reconnect with family and possibly stare down old ghosts. Stanton deserved an Oscar nomination for that performance. It didn’t materialize. The Academy now has another shot at acknowledging one of our very best character actors by posthumously nominating him.

As “sentimental favorite”? Hardly. Stanton would tell his peers to go f— themselves if any such motivation entered into it. Like the unorthodox actor, his cagey alter ego wouldn’t ask for or expect favors. He can stand on his own.

Overall, actor-turned-director Lynch (Marge’s doting husband in “Fargo”) approaches the material with restraint, allowing the meandering tale to seemingly set its own pace. He only trips up in allowing Lucky an out-of-character (but nevertheless amazing) birthday serenade and by imposing a parting message, compete with heavy-handed symbolism, reckoning, epiphany and straight-at-the-camera smile.

But even this sentimental lapse can be forgiven because, after all, this vehicle is on one level a grateful adios, an actor nearing the end of his run, sharing a moment and nodding, “Hey thanks, it’s been some ride.”

LUCKY ✮✮✮1/2 With Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Barry Sabaka Henley, Beth Grant, Yvonne Huff, Ron Livingston, James Darren, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Bertila Damas. 88 mins. Unrated (could be PG-13 for profanity, adult material)

 

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