The Fifth Chicago Critics Film Festival ran from May 12-18, 2017 at the historic Music Box Theatre.
This was my third year attending the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Unlike previous years, I no longer live in that great city so I was only able to make it back for three films.
THE LITTLE HOURS
Loosely based on one of the tales in The Decameron, Writer/director Jeff Baena’s THE LITTLE HOURS is a film with a one-joke premise. That it is able to ride that joke fairly well for the first thirty or so minutes is surprising; that the joke becomes tiring for the rest of the movie is not.
Set in 14th century Italy, the film revels in the joke of placing modern dialogue (liberally laced with profanity) in the mouths of nuns, priests, feudal lords, and beaten down servants. Despite plot elements (horny nuns, a character has to pretend to be deaf and mute, witchcraft, and star-crossed lovers) that could support a ’30s-style screwball farce, Baena settles for coasting on stunt casting (Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Molly Shannon as the nuns; Nick Offerman as a feudal lord; Fred Armisen as a Catholic bishop) and the anachronistic dialogue. If not for heartfelt performances by John C. Reilly as a kind priest, Shannon as a conflicted Mother Superior, and Dave Franco as the character forced to pretend to be deaf and mute, THE LITTLE HOURS would look and feel like the longest Funny or Die video ever produced.
That complaint registered, the film is very funny until it wears out its welcome. For fans of the particular brands of comedy supplied by the comedic actors on display, there is plenty to keep them satisfied. But for everyone else, it could become a real slog to finish. It definitely was for me.
Harry Dean Stanton is a living legend. There are not many actors who can boast the career he has put together in his ninety (!) years on this planet. Still, considering his prolific run as one of America’s greatest character actors, it is surprising to realize that he has only had what can be considered one lead role (PARIS, TEXAS—a case could also be made for REPO MAN). That is why I was looking forward to seeing him take the lead in LUCKY.
Lucky (Stanton) is a ninety-year-old, lifelong bachelor living in a small desert town. His days are regimented into his morning cigarette in bed, silly looking exercises in his underwear, doing the newspaper crossword at the local diner, buying a pack of cigarettes and gallon of milk at a convenience store, yelling “Cunts!” through the doorway of an unknown place of business, and drinking a bloody mary at a bar with the other regulars. Refreshingly, unlike many movies about elderly loners, Lucky is portrayed as neither a bitter old coot nor a wise elder. He is simply a mostly kind old guy who is either liked or tolerated by those he comes into contact with during his daily travels.
When Lucky has a strange spell and falls in his kitchen, he goes to see his doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) who can find nothing wrong with him. In fact, despite his addiction to cigarettes and his nightly bloody mary, the doctor tells Lucky that he might be the healthiest ninety-year-old alive and encourages him to reflect on his life and mortality while he is still well since most people only do so when they are dying. This information and advice sends Lucky into an unexpected, very late-life crisis that slightly strains his easy-going friendship with the handful of people he interacts with during his daily rounds.
If you could not guess from that description, LUCKY is a movie of very low stakes, and that is fine. First time director John Carroll Lynch (an impressive character actor in his own right) lets the film coast on the talent and charm of Stanton and a rotation of other recognizable character actors (Begley, Ron Livingston, Beth Grant, Tom Skerritt, Barry Shabak Henley, James Darren) and uses the long history Stanton and David Lynch have together to give the director a fun role as his drinking buddy. Given that cast and the sheer fun Stanton seems to be having, LUCKY is a very easy film to like. But I wanted to love it and that is where the curse of expectations comes into play.
I suppose my slight dissatisfaction with the direction the film takes is that midway through, LUCKY threatens to take a bizarre right turn into a completely different kind of film. To that point, I was content with the film as a series of vignettes that gave each character a scene to shine with an extensive monologue. But when Lynch does nothing with the out of leftfield twist and goes back to what the film was doing up to that point, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.
That said, how disappointed can you be with a film that features Harry Dean Stanton singing a ballad with a Mariachi band? LUCKY is sweet natured and often funny, giving Stanton a chance to shine in his laidback, reflective performance. As a love letter to Stanton’s iconic presence, it accomplishes its modest goals with ease. I would be curmudgeon of epic proportions if I didn’t appreciate that.
The low stakes of LUCKY feel positively refreshing when compared to the relatively heavy hand with which co-writer/director Brett Haley pours on the melodrama in THE HERO.
Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is an aging actor known mostly for his roles as a gunslinger and cowboy in westerns from the ’60s and ’70s. Claiming that a movie titled “The Hero” was the only film he was proud of making, he is adrift without a purpose. Reduced to using his signature deep drawl to do voiceovers for barbecue sauce commercials, he spends his days smoking weed with his drug dealer (Nick Offerman)—who happens to be his former co-star on a short-lived TV show—and watching Buster Keaton movies. When a terminal cancer diagnosis comes out of the blue, he makes the decision to get his life in order and find one last great role before he dies.
Just like LUCKY, THE HERO was tailor-made for Elliott. His laidback charm and easy charisma have not diminished with age and he and Haley wisely show how Lee has that same charm, but has used it as a crutch for too long. Lee is likable, but you get the sense that he stopped expecting anything out of himself long before his career slowed to a crawl. It is easy to see how a man gifted with such easygoing grace would wind up in a situation where he is friendly with his ex-wife (Katharine Ross) but is uncomfortable reaching out to his semi-estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) who sees through the charm to the hollow person underneath.
Oddly enough, the same charm that Elliott gives Lee as a man who never fully lived up to his talents is what keeps THE HERO engaging through some very clichéd beats. From the terminal cancer diagnosis to the estranged daughter plot to an unconvincing romance with a much younger woman (Laura Prepon), Haley pulls the greatest hits from the dying man ties up loose ends playbook. It is interesting to see Elliott’s talent actually save a movie where he plays an actor whose talents could not save his own career. It at least gives the film a level of irony that was probably unintended, but is nonetheless welcome.
As a showcase for Elliott, the film works very well. He gets to push himself in ways that many roles have never allowed. But his excellent turn is in support of a storyline that never even threatens to become something more interesting or difficult for the audience to digest, and that is a major problem.
Lee’s life has been one of measured career success that has only led to sporadic satisfaction. His success at tying up the loose ends of that life comes a little too easily for a man who appears to have consistently taken the path of least resistance. It is a crowd-pleasing moral lesson to say that the major mistakes of your life can be rectified with a couple of conversations and understanding that you mean more to the people around you than you do to yourself, but it also feels false. Lee is a smart character and Elliott is an emotionally honest actor. Letting Lee off the hook so easily feels like a betrayal of both the character and the actor to reach for a dishonest uplifting ending.
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Tags: Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Barry Shabaka Henley, Beth Grant, Brett Haley, Chicago Critics Film Festival, Dave Franco, David Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Armisen, Harry Dean Stanton, James Darren, John C. Reilly, John Carroll Lynch, Kate Micucci, Katharine Ross, Krysten Ritter, Laura Prepon, Lucky, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Paris Texas, Repo Man, Ron Livingston, Sam Elliott, The Decameron, The Hero, The Little Hours, Tom Skerritt