It seems like there was a time when bumper stickers like "Mean People Suck" and "Practice Random Acts Of Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty" were plastered everywhere. They're nice ideologies but in the end it's all bullshit. At the very least, we all have our mean moments and practice acts of selfishness. Hey, nobody's perfect but that doesn't stop Setsuko, the protagonist of Atsuko Hirayanagi's Oh Lucy! from trying to be the best person possible in the eyes of those closest to her. Unfortunately, she often gets in her own way
It's rare that a movie begins with someone being whacked by rapid transit. That's exactly how Hirayanagi's film begins — a frontward step into pathos and bleak humor. Witnessing this violent act of suicide does little to wake Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) from her zombified activities. Her life is overbearingly quiet. Her job and any activities associated with it are the only things that provide sound to her life and even that is barely audible. Having taken a few too many to the chin, that aforementioned selflessness that Setsuko tries to exercise is threatening to deteriorate. Her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), is kind of a manipulative brat and Ayako (Kaho Minami), Setsuko's sister, well dear god she suuuuucks. Mika may have a martyr complex but it is nowhere near as bad as Ayako's constant belittling of her sister whenever possible. One would imagine that if Ayako saw a therapist, something her personality would never ever allow, said therapist would prescribe her a rope.
When Ayako begs her sister for the umpteenth favor in their one-sided relationship, Setsuko reluctantly agrees to cover the cost of English classes that Mika had been attending as well as take the remainder of classes. It is then that Setsuko enters the English Only Zone of John (Josh Hartnett), an American instructor in this tiny classroom made up of two students, Setsuko and a widower named Takeshi (Koji Yakusho).John's classes are unconventional to say the least. In their first class, John hugs his students, has them wear tacky wigs, and changes their names to fit a more American model, Setsuko becoming Lucy and Takeshi becoming Tom. At one point, John hugs the now blonde wig adorned Setsuko. When Setsuko hugs him way too long, her eyes close, as if in a state bliss and peace. Though Setsuko gets to know Takeshi outside of class, her mind is completely locked on John. In him, and her new alter ego, she sees an escape from dreariness. She has a literal mic drop moment at an employee going away party. It's here where the venom and spite seep through her seemingly calm exterior, leaving others shocked and upset. Her moment of rebirth is quickly squashed when she finds out Mika has run off with John to Los Angeles. With the brazenness that John has helped her find within herself, Setsuko decides to go to Los Angeles too. Unfortunately, Ayako and her domineering ways have decided to join her. Chaos ensues.
- Courtesy NHK
Like Setsuko herself, Oh Lucy! is deadpan. There is humor but it rests within the audience's universal recognition of shitty behavior that we've either encountered or employed. Some of the humor is astoundingly dark.
Every actor in this film brings their characters to life. Kaho Minami makes you wish Ayako would have a magical movie moment to relieve her of her assholery. Shioli Kutsuna's performance reminds its audience that despite all her brattiness, Mika is still a sympathetic character. Josh Hartnett makes John a lost soul with villainous tendencies. In the end it's Shinobu Terajima's show. Without saying a word you can feel Setsuko's desperation, her way too small pockets of joy, and the seething spitefulness that makes her life a never-ending fail horn. We feel her crush on John as she watches him sing along to Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" and relishes the sliver of time he shows her how to pump gas into a car. You feel heartbroken for and angry at Setsuko when she screws up royally choosing to take part in a temporary respite from loneliness.
Another one of the best things about the film is the way it pleasantly subverts standard dramatic expectations. I assumed things would take the usual route most road trip/self-rediscovery films take. Usually films using this angle involve the protagonist meeting quirky characters and finding inspiration. Usually in a road trip film, a pair of estranged sisters would find love and laughter along the way. This movie says no thank you to meeting that expectation.
Getting out of your own way is not very easy. Oh Lucy! illustrates it to a tee.
Oh Lucy! — Starring Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, and Kaho Minami. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi. NR.