Surprising, disorienting and, ultimately, exhausting.
Buoyant here and bracing there, at times feather light and then dead serious, Oh Lucy! is a study in tonal contrasts. Atsuko Hirayanagi’s feature-length adaptation of her 2014 short of the same name whiplashes between comedy and drama much like the recent awards-season darling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It, too, demands a lot of patience from viewers, that we be fully onboard with many abrupt shifts in mood, which can be surprising, disorienting and, ultimately, exhausting.
Unlike Martin McDonagh’s exploration of maternal grief and vengeance, Hirayanagi’s listless tale—of her protagonist’s control-alt-deletion of identity and place—lacks a compelling catalyst, the why for what’s to come. One outrageous scene follows another. None of them hang together to form a cohesive, cogent whole.
Oh Lucy! tells the story of Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima, stolid and captivating), a Tokyo office drone who, when we first meet her, witnesses a subway suicide during a morning commute. At the behest of her niece Mika (the sparkling Shiori Kutsuna), she begins taking English classes at a seedy school that looks more like a nightclub than a place of learning. There she meets the hapless, if dashing, American instructor John (an unexpectedly tender Josh Hartnett, once a teen heartthrob). For these lessons, John encourages Setsuko to don a new name—and she chooses Lucy, randomly. To complete the transformation, a curly yellow wig is placed atop her head.
The introverted Setsuko instantly inhabits this bolder, stereotypically American alter ego in her everyday life. First, she upends the niceties of a retirement party for an older colleague, a woman who’s been put out to pasture, by revealing the ridicule her coworkers uttered daily. Then, when Setsuko discovers Mika and John are lovers who’ve flown the coop to California, she follows them westward with her estranged sister—Mika’s mother, Ayako (the stony Kaho Minami) —unhappily in tow.
When Setsuko and Ayako arrive in southern California, after a delightful flight sequence featuring a fellow passenger played by Megan Mullally (ever wonderful), the film shifts from Tokyo cosmopolitanism to the worn-down aesthetic of Sean Baker, a combination of the Angelino grunge of Tangerine and the squalid motel landscape of The Florida Project. The comparison does no favors for Atsuko Hirayanagi, who eventually surveys American roughs with few diamonds unearthed in the process.
Her actors mostly overcome a wildly uneven, sometimes amateurish screenplay (penned by Hirayanagi and Boris Frumin). Hartnett manages to balance John’s charm and awfulness. Kutsuna is equally endearing and frustrating as Mika, the film’s MacGuffin. And Terajima, as Setsuko, is our Virgil through this purgatory. We wade into narrative limbo, but at least with a capable guide.
The most compelling part of Oh Lucy! is its title, particularly that exclamation point. It suggests a playful, libidinous romp in the style of Pedro Almodóvar. That’s partly true. It turns out that it also represents an exasperated shout, from an omniscient narrator toward the titular character: “Lucy, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” Sadly, the question is more tantalizing than its answer.