The late Stanton carries film about mortality

Photo courtesy of Superlative Films

John Carroll Lynch (“Zodiac”) has a cheeky eye — a patient, slow-burning eye for subtlety but cheeky nonetheless. In his debut feature “Lucky,” he puts it to good use. “Lucky” is notable for being one of the final films of Harry Dean Stanton (“Paris, Texas”), who died at the age of 91 one month ago.

Starring Stanton as the eponymous Lucky, the film follows Stanton’s eccentric, stubbornly independent 90-some year old persona as he conducts the same idiosyncratic daily routine in a small Midwestern town.

Viewers are treated to each charming repetition as Lucky wakes up, shaves, smokes several cigarettes, does yoga exercises and ambles from his home to the local diner for a coffee and a crossword. Every wrinkle in Stanton’s face is expressive; viewers never tire of watching him shuffle, brood and argue from place to place.

Lynch’s shots are slow and observant, allowing viewers to soak every feature, contradiction and quirk of the life Lucky has forged for himself, from the cactus he waters in his underwear to the game shows that he religiously watches.

Suddenly, one morning as he is waiting for his daily coffee to brew, Lucky falls. At the hospital, he is told not to be alarmed because his fall is simply an inevitable result of his old age. For the first time in a while, Lucky is forced to face his own mortality.

While it is not an original idea by any stretch of the imagination, there is charm to this film, and most of it stems from Stanton himself. Spouting off words of wisdom that reveal a deep intuition beneath his quiet facade, Stanton is able to infuse depth and poignancy to the rote routine of a single individual. This poignancy is demonstrated wonderfully when Lucky is invited to a birthday party for a friend’s son and delivers a soulful, scratchy rendition of “Volver, Volver” to the music of a hired Mariachi Band.

Still, this charm can only take a movie so far. While Lynch has built a strong cast around Stanton, it seems as if he has neither the script nor experience to direct them well. As Lucky cycles through his three standard watering holes — a diner, a bodega and a bar — he interacts with the same cast of characters over and over again. Each voices their advice, opinions and existential worries, and every time, it feels as if each character is delivering a rehearsed, trite monologue on perspective, time and mortality. Nearly every line not delivered by Stanton is ever so slightly stilted.

If the film’s editing were a little tighter, a more natural quality could be offered to these lines. David Lynch, the prolific director of “Twin Peaks” and “Mulholland Drive,” plays Howard. A lonely, similarly eccentric man, Howard’s tortoise, President Roosevelt, recently ran away. Upon the loss of his lifelong friend and pet, Howard lectures his fellow bar patrons on his torment. Scenes like this have the potential to be both humorous and deeply affecting, but the script only feeds actors familiar, well-worn platitudes.

The weak directing forces viewers to simply infer the emotional intention of each scene. Many of the characters only ever seem to be reacting to Lucky, as audience surrogates, rather than adding any complexity and depth to the plot.

The movie does not say anything original about mortality and other themes. The script never takes Lucky’s character anywhere that departs from the generic existential crises that ail most aging characters. At 88 minutes long, the movie could benefit from more plot points and character development that would push Lucky into more emotionally rich territory.

Despite the heavy nature of its themes, the film never descends into existential dread or despair. Though he broods and grumbles, Lucky constantly looks to accept his mortality and face his world with a broad, asymmetric smile.