Oh Lucy!

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Shinobu Terajima in Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy!

There are moments in Oh Lucy! that made me laugh out loud, and plenty of others that made me smile. It’s positively bursting with talented people who give uniformly great performances. It doesn’t go where you expect it to go. It avoids a tidy, clean ending—all things that I usually appreciate in a film. It’s been widely praised and currently holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

And yet something is…off. I hate even writing that, because I really, really wanted to like this film, and twenty-four hours after seeing it I’m still not quite sure why it didn’t work for me. It might just be that it feels thin. It’s short (95 minutes), but the length isn’t the problem—it’s that the story jumps too quickly from situation to situation without giving us enough time to understand the characters’ motivations. If this were a straight-up satire, that might work, but that’s the other problem: the movie can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. It advertises itself as a dark comedy, but frequently it’s just dark, particularly in its portrayal of the lead character, who is forced into so many humiliating situations that I started to get desperate for her to succeed at something.

Written and directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi, Oh Lucy! tells the story of Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a dead-eyed, middle-aged woman working a miserable-looking job and living alone in an apartment straight out of Hoarders. When her niece Mika asks her to go to her English classes in her place (paying Mika the course fees, since it’s impossible to get a refund), Setsuko agrees—maybe out of fondness for her niece and the desire to try something new, but maybe also to spite her sister, with whom she has a troubled history. At the English school, she meets John (Josh Hartnett), who seems to bring a bit of a spring to her step with his unconventional teaching methods (she’s told that her name is now “Lucy” and is asked to wear a blond wig). When John leaves the school and returns to the U.S., Setsuko decides to follow him.

Everything that happens afterward might have been more interesting if we’d been given more time to watch Setsuko become enamored with John, or to see what it is about his lessons that lights a fire under her. But she only attends one class, where she also meets fellow student Komori (the criminally underused Kōji Yakusho), who also wears a wig and goes by “Tom.” This entire “goofy eikaiwa school” subplot feels like a great setup for a dark comedy, but it’s over before it starts.

The scenes in L.A. also left me full of questions as to why many of the characters behave the way they do. That section of the movie—the bulk of it—is essentially a collection of vignettes that don’t really seem to build toward anything meaningful. Which, again, would be fine if we were watching a straight-up satire, but Oh Lucy! also wants to include subplots on suicide, abortion, and surprisingly graphic sex, all of which jar with the film’s lightly comic tone in other scenes.

It’s a shame, because this is a film with so much potential. As someone who worked in the eikaiwa industry for three years, I can say that those moments ring very true—the sleazy location of the school, the cheap-looking classrooms (the school appears to be a former karaoke box), the teachers who seem more like children’s entertainers than educators, the intense awkwardness that students feel when teachers tell them to “lighten up,” the way that plenty of the students seem deeply lonely and more interested in human contact than actually studying a foreign language. I laughed and cringed at the same time.

The performances are all solid. Shinobu Terajima, who has played roles as varied as the dutiful wife of a mutilated veteran in Caterpillar (for which she won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2010), a wild sexpot in the Brazilian play All Nudity Shall Be Punished, and a sharp-tongued divorcee in the recent Dear Etranger,  is never less than mesmerizing. In Oh Lucy!, she’s delightfully weird, eternally pissed off, and not at all interested in being the dutiful tea-server that her company expects her to be. It’s fun to watch her roll her eyes at the excessive politeness she’s surrounded by, and to have a bit of fun with the idea that she could reinvent herself as “Lucy.” Kaho Minami, as her sister, is convincingly world-weary (yet determined to play by the rules in a way that Setsuko seems to have given up on). Josh Harnett is convincing as the very average guy who appeared much more desirable in Japan than in L.A., and Kōji Yakusho is tender and decent and always a joy to see on screen. A final moment that he shares with Setsuko at the end of the film is genuinely poignant.

The characters are intriguing, but the script doesn’t know quite what to do with them. Setsuko in particular is thrown from one demeaning situation to the next—she’s disdained by her co-workers, manipulated by her niece, sneered at by her sister, and pushed away by the man she obsesses over. At a particularly low point she throws herself at Komori, drunkenly taking off her clothes as he gently pushes her away, and I actually had to look away from the screen. This isn’t to say that the story of a less-than-likable woman who doesn’t come out on top at the end couldn’t work, but at some point Setsuko’s story just starts to feel like an endless treadmill of humiliation.

Oh Lucy! might be suffering from a problem that I see in so much contemporary Japanese cinema: some part of the filmmaking process feels rushed. Sometimes it’s the cinematography, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s the visual effects. In this case the script just feels unfinished. With a little more time and revision, the script, and the film itself, could have been polished into something great: an off-the-rails comedy, a dark commentary on contemporary Japanese social problems, or some combination of both. As it stands, though, Oh Lucy! feels like a series of missed opportunities. The potential for greatness is definitely there, though, so I’ll be on the lookout for what Atsuko Hirayanagi does next.

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