There is nothing worse than a narrative that cheats you. In the pantheon of cinematic crimes, it is an artistic atrocity, right up there with killing off a favored character or ending the third act with a routine car chase. When it happens, the audience is magically transported back to that Christmas where the hoped for toy train set ended up being an itchy pair of dress pants or when that longed for first kiss from the best looking girl or guy in grade school was really a halitosis-filled farce. A good writer knows that when you employ such a device, when you reveal, "it was all a dream" or "it turns out she was dead", you take your literary life in your hands. You will either enrapt or enrage your audience. And there are times when you can commit the crime and not really know it. You can think you are working yourself into a demented frenzy of shifting realities and pragmatic fantasy, faultlessly executing your well-honed script into a magnificent mindf*ck all its own. Problem is, you better be able to deliver the goods. If you jack around with an audience's expectations for, say 75 minutes, and then whizz the resolution down your leg and out into the inspirational gutter, you're just as guilty as those brainiacs who conceived that putting Bobby Ewing in a shower and canceling out the previous season's storylines was an acceptable actor insertion solution. Writing yourself into a corner should be a warning, not a wrap up. You should never create a scenario that you have no rational, explanation, or conclusion for. It is not good narrative business. And yet this is what the independent film Lucky does. It leads us up to the brink of something very special, and then simply implodes when it has nowhere left inventive to go.
Millard Mudd is a drunken dolt who, we are told, writes cartoons. One look at the squalid surroundings in which he soils himself daily – a diseased house littered with mold, mildew, garbage and billions of beer cans – and you can see how successful he is at his chosen craft. One night, while picking up liquid "inspiration", he hits and nearly kills a small dog. He takes it to his Hell home and tries to nurse it back to health. As the canine recuperates, Millard is struck by more bad news. His lack of work ethic has cost him his agent. As he slowly de-evolves into a pathetic load, he finally gets a little glad tiding. The pup that he thought was a goner pulls through. His name is Lucky. He is a very special animal. He can speak to Millard, telepathically.
At first, Millard thinks he is cracking up. But Lucky actually helps him get his act together and, more importantly, to start writing again. Soon Millard is in demand and it is all thanks to his eloquent four-legged friend (who dictates the scripts to him and takes all the credit). But Lucky is not content with merely making Millard famous. He also wants to help the guy personally. Millard is obsessed with a woman named Misty and his sexual fantasies have turned dark and morbid. When Lucky arranges a hook-up, everything seems to be fine. But as the couple continues their relationship, the dog gets jealous. Misty keeps Millard from "their" work and he won't stand for it.
One night, a delivery girl from a studio stops by to confront Millard. She is convinced he is not responsible for these new, professional scripts. When she dies accidentally, everything in Mr. Mudd's life changes. Lucky becomes belligerent and demanding. Doubts (and liquor) begin to re-creep into Millard's mental state. And a strange need for necrophilia overtakes the scribe. It's not long before the bodies are piled out back like chord wood and Millard's writer's block has turned into another psychosis: serial murder. There is only one way out for Mudd. He must get rid of Lucky. But the dog may just have some ideas of his own.
As a reviewer, it's really hard to completely hate Lucky. Most of the time, the movie works wonderfully as an unholy bleak black comedy with enough wit, wisdom and exceptional writing to get you over the obtuse narrative humps. Scribe Stephen Sustarsic has created one of the most provocative sketches of creativity in fevered flux since David Cronenberg confronted William Burrough's Naked Lunch. The notion that imagination can border on insanity as applied to the artist is not new, but the way in which Millard manifests his creative drought is nicely realized in the Travis Bickle on Budweiser rants he spews endlessly. Sustarsic has a good ear for procrastination pondering and when Millard begins his ever-darkening sexual fantasies, the descriptions, both visual and verbal are near brilliant. Director Steve Cuden has to be credited as well for finding an efficient (budget wise) manner in which to realize Sustarsic's outlandish ideas while at the same time respecting their invention. He does this by maintaining a strict artistic vision, repeating motifs (the movie is all darkness and under lighting), shots and sequences (especially in the disturbing, violent sick sex stuff). He builds an insular universe into which Millard and his talking dog (along with the audience) can get lost in. The fact that the viewer too finds his or herself as flummoxed as the main character may, however, not be the response they were looking for.
Lucky is, by all accounts, an exploration of the mind, a chance to mix nightmares with daydreams and alcoholic visions to peek into the soiled, sullen mind of a desperate writer. As such, it needs a top notch cast to get us through all the camera tricks and editing magic. Thankfully, the acting is terrific, with only a couple of ancillary characters making like junior high thespians. Michael Emanuel is affable and ambiguous in the lead role. He can be very funny. He can also be very creepy. He carries this film throughout, from the overheard narration with all its mental masturbation pontification to the scenes of awkward adoration with his dream girl Misty. The gals of Lucky also have to be praised for going through with some of the more disturbing portions of the project. This is a film that wallows in degradation, humiliation and intense erotic violence. For every scene that is handled with tongue firmly planted in cheek (Millard and Misty discuss her pending torture like Ozzie and Harriet discussing a meatloaf recipe) there are several that have a real powerful punch (pardon the pun), delving into such subjects as bondage, discipline, rape, pain and necrophilia. Sometimes, the juxtaposition between the near deadpan comedy and the cold corpse friggin' can be a little uneasy and there will be time when the starkness of the sadism can be overwhelming. Still, the women in these scenes are to be commended for being brave enough to bare it all and take the abuse, all in the name of art and cinema.
So Lucky should be an overall winner, a compelling work of originality marred only by a couple of amateur theatrics and an occasional, confrontation sexual tone. But that would be making Lucky something that it is not, or at least something it cannot maintain throughout. The failing facet of the film, besides the ending (which we will get to in a minute) is that it literally starts to run out of steam. The idea engine uses up all of its creative coal and the insane motion picture express tires to cruise into the station via past innovation and potential. Unfortunately, there is just not enough to do it. The minute Millard turns from mild-mannered malt liquor fiend to Jason Voorhees with a Theasaurus, the movie loses you. Like those long-winded dissertations Millard gives us at the beginning of the film (where he is trying to differentiate between perception, reality, dream and fantasy) the minutes the bodies start piling up like discarded newspapers, we simply start to tune out. The movie has bucked us like a bronco and left us sore. It will take a great deal...or a GREAT ENDING to get us back on the horse again. Unfortunately, Lucky cannot deliver. It gets mad at itself, acknowledging that too much has happened for both the characters and the viewers for anyone to go back now. And yet it retreats. Without spoiling the ending, it relies on one of the most formulaic finales in the cinematic history books and it leaves the audience to ponder that, if this was the way Millard could have solved his problems before, why didn't he just take a 'shot' at it somewhere around the middle of act two.
So how could Lucky have ended and been successful? Who knows? One could envision a sequence in which clues, dribbled out Sixth Sense style around the narrative, add up to a set of simple answers and startling resolutions where everything makes sense. Or maybe a Fight Club style personality switch is in order, where Millard and Lucky are really one in the same (perhaps a house pet's psychological longing to be human taken to a sick extreme). Since our pampered pooch seems to be able to communicate with his mind, write scripts and survives having half of his intestines hanging out, maybe he is a hound from Hell, ready to release his demonic dog doo all over its unwitting benefactor in return for a little soul slobbering. Frankly, any of the ideas posited here would have worked better and more believably than the ramble down rote lane that Lucky eventually takes. And it is a shame, really. For anyone looking to see something evocative, inventive, funny, disturbing, literate and lewd, Lucky is a movie that delivers. And maybe you will enjoy the final five minutes, the concluding moments where, in this critic's opinion, the entire enterprise is undermined. Just don't say you weren't warned. Lucky begins with a great deal of fortune. It ends up being unfortunate.
It needs to be said upfront: Lucky looks crappy. It is a compressed, pixelated mess with optical issues abounding. It is a strangely matted non-anamorphic widescreen presentation (1.85:1 one guesses) that has numerous optical issues. The darks bleed and obscure the action (and since the film is set 95% at night, we are in for a LOT of visual obstructions) and we get some flaring from the digital camerawork. There is more grain here than in all the Midwest. In essence, one has to sit back and take the terrible transfer as another "artistic" layer in the director's canon of creativity. Otherwise, there is no excuse for something this slapdash.
Strangely enough, Lucky actually sounds good. The sly, snide music used is appropriate to the wildly shifting tone of the work, and the dialogue and narration are all easily understandable. Occasionally, Lucky's "voice" is mixed too low, meaning we almost miss some key lines or jokes. But overall, this Dolby Digital Stereo presentation is nice.
Like they did with Vicious, MTI gives Lucky a lot of digital love when it comes to bonus material. We get a trailer, which makes the movie seem more sinister than it is while avoiding all the sadistic sex, a group of additional low-budget movie ads that mimic Lucky's DIY ideals perfectly and an in-depth, if hard to read, set of cast and crew biographies (sit close to the TV kiddies if you expect to read the resumes of the individuals involved here). But perhaps the most interesting extra is the full-length commentary track by director Steve Cuden. For those interested in a blow-by-blow account of how long it took to achieve certain shots, the specific ownership and relationship to the crew of the locations and the props, and how much attention to detail scribe Stephen Sustarsic put into both the script and the set design, this is the narrative for you. Cuden is a dry, detached narrator, providing all manner of minutia to indicate how this independent production came together. He even offers some analysis of the film, adding insight to every strange sequence...even the ending. But with his explanation in hand, the film is still unsatisfying. Cuden's key to understanding his film doesn't quite fit in the logic lock of Lucky. And if it's true, it's still weak. (SPOILER) The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was shocking when you read it in junior high. And the poem "Richard Corey" had its pentameter bite. But the resolution here just doesn't have the same power. It still feels like a life raft cast out into a complicated narrative storm. Clarified or not, the ending – like the commentary track itself - still undersells Lucky.
As Lucky spirals downward towards its less than satisfactory conclusion, a lot of thoughts will run through your head. You will wonder what this is all supposed to mean. Is it trying to say that all writer's with a creative block result to psychotic episodes, disturbingly violent sexual fantasies, hallucinations and serial murder as a way to free their muse? Is it a cartoon gone carnal, a twisted insight into animation script specialist Millard Mudd's personal imagination way station? Does it have anything to say about the life of the mind or is it just an affirmation that one ends up selling their soul to work in the entertainment business? Whatever it is trying to get at, Lucky is successful for 90% of its running time. It marries the mentally disturbed with the surreal and the silly to enthrall, provoke, and give you the willies. But when the ending takes the cheap way out, when it undercuts everything that came before to maneuver out of a literal dead end, something shoddy happens. There may be those of you out there who will forgive this cop out, who will accept the solution as the only possible position Millard could take. But for this critic at least, that would be unfair. For 75 minutes, Lucky sold itself as smarter, stranger and more seductive than that. It is obvious that Stephen Sustarsic could have used a telepathic mutt of his own to push this screenplay into the realm of ultimate unreality that he was aiming for throughout. Perhaps with a Lucky looking over his shoulder, we'd have a completely successful film, instead of one that is extraordinary, yet fatally flawed.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here