If you happened to see the trailer for Oh Lucy!, the surprisingly dark Japanese/American dramedy expanded from a 2014 short with the title by Japanese writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi, you might expect something a little more sweet and charming than it really is. It's unclear what they were going for with the promotion of this film, but then, it's understandable to think maybe they just didn't quite know where to go with it.
It's a unique story, unlike anything else you'll see at the movies, that's for sure. Roughly half takes place in Tokyo and half in Southern California, with the majority of the dialogue spoken in Japanese: the one American part among the leads, and thus the one major American actor, is the source of most of the English spoken. If Hirayanagi was looking for a pretty average yet handsome American guy, Josh Hartnett was a good choice. He's sort of the poor-man's Ashton Kutcher (why have these two never played brothers?), and Kutcher himself isn't exactly the richest choice either.
Here Hartnett plays an American teaching English in Tokyo, but we don't meet him until the title character, Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima, fantastic) is persuaded by her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) to take her place in the class. Setsuko has a much better relationship with Mika than Mike's mother Ayako (Kaho Minami) does, and things between the sisters are rather strained as well.
Lest you think this movie is too lighthearted, suicide figures somewhat prominently: the beautifully shot opening scene has a stranger whispering "Goodbye" into Setsuko's ear before hurling himself in front of an oncoming commuter train. Just a barrel of laughs from the very beginning, this movie! I get the feeling there is some thematic threads here connected to Japanese culture -- Japan is known for its relatively high suicide rate -- about which I don't know near enough to make any useful observations.
John, the English teacher, focuses on American English and specifically how casual Americans are, immediately hugging each student practically as soon as they enter. Does John's class in any way resemble typical real-life English-as-a-second-language classes in Japan, I wonder? I have my doubts. His attire, glasses, the way he parts his hair -- they all come across a bit more like someone outside the U.S. might imagine such a teacher.
Still, John has his deceptive charms. Setsuko only gets to take one of his classes; by the time she returns, she discovers he has disappeared and is to be replaced by a new teacher. A little too conveniently to be plausible, she catches John and Mika leaving in a taxi cab as soon as she leaves the building. Before long, Setsuka and her sister Ayako are flying themselves to Los Angeles in search of the return address on a postcard Mika has sent.
Once Setsuko and Ayako find John at his apartment, John feels a little more authentic. It's not as certain the same could be said of Setsuko, who gradually reveals herself to be a little unhinged, at the same time John is gradually revealed to be a bit of a deadbeat. Before long, Mika is being pursued in San Diego, relations get muddled, and there is a spectacularly awkward sex scene in the front seat of a car.
Fear not, though: even as dark as Oh Lucy! gets, it still veers in the end toward a redemption of sorts. At many turns, this movie challenges suspension of disbelief, but it's never egregious enough to give up on it. It's well shot and well edited, which alone keeps things moving and prevents the story from ever being dull or overly indulging in its contrivances. If nothing else, it's a story that unfolds in a plethora of unexpected, if sometimes mystifying, ways.