The movie "Lucky" is, on the surface, the story of a lonely old man and the uneventful life he leads. That simple tale is made more meaningful - and more melancholy - for two reasons: It's the leading role for Harry Dean Stanton, the prolific character actor who died last month at 91. But the movie also sneaks up on you. What starts out trivial gradually turns into a drama about big ideas: mortality and the meaning of life; the value of relationships and the vulnerability they require.
"Lucky" marks the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch - another familiar supporting player from such films as "Zodiac" and "Shutter Island" - from a script by first-timers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, who wrote the screenplay with Stanton in mind. This explains why details about the elderly title character mirror many from Stanton's life. Like Lucky, Stanton served in the Navy during World War II, and he never married or had children.
But the character is probably more of a prickly loner than the actor who plays him. Every morning, Lucky goes about an eccentric routine - calisthenics in his underwear, a few cigarettes, a glass of milk from an otherwise empty refrigerator - before heading to what's probably the only diner in his dusty desert home town. Lucky's idea of a pleasantry is to shout, "You're nothing" at the owner, who replies in kind.
He works on his crossword puzzle before walking to the bodega for more cigarettes and milk, returning home for his favorite game shows. In the evening, he hangs out at a bar, where he's the resident contrarian. Occasionally, Lucky has a phone conversation, on his red landline, with an unknown person who, we suspect, could be no one.
This talky setup would work just well as a stage play, since conversation is the main event. Lucky listens to his friend Howard (David Lynch) complain about losing his pet tortoise, and chats with the bodega owner (Bertila Damas) about her young son. He himself doesn't say much, and he often exits a conversation before it seems entirely done. When a bartender excitedly tries to persuade Lucky to give reruns of the television show "Deal or No Deal" a try, the old man doesn't bother humoring him, saying decisively that the premise sounds like garbage.
Such a cantankerous geezer would probably stick to this routine forever if it weren't for a strange incident one morning, when Lucky becomes mesmerized by the flashing digital clock on his electric coffeemaker and then passes out. His doctor (an amusing Ed Begley Jr.) can't find anything wrong, but Lucky is clearly shaken. Old memories start flooding back, and his antagonistic tendencies become more pronounced and aggressive. It's not always clear what Lucky's thinking. He's opaque and monotonous. But in these moments - thanks to Stanton's nuanced performance - we can see the hardness softening, even as he tries, desperately, to feign toughness. Several side players shine here, especially Tom Skerritt in a brief but moving scene as another World War II veteran with awful memories he can't shake
But this is really Stanton's moment to be in the spotlight, after so many decades in mostly supporting roles. Thirty-three years after appearing in "Paris, Texas," in the lead role that catapulted him to fame, Stanton, as "Lucky" reminds us, remained capable of carrying a movie even to the very end.