American English is different from the Queen’s English. That’s what Setsuko Kawashima’s Yankee English teacher teaches, so it makes sense he has a pedagogy you won’t find in British public schools. John hugs a lot and deep down, she rather digs that. She is profoundly sad, so she might as well start taking risks, even when they are wildly ill-conceived. Free-spiritedness is harder to master than it looks in Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.
Kawashima is a quietly desperate office lady, whose only consolation is that most of her co-workers’ jokes are directed behind the back of her senior colleague. Her relationship with her drama queen sister is strained at best, because Kawashima still blames Ayako for stealing and marrying her former boyfriend. Generally, Kawashima is okay with her flighty niece Mika, but she is still cautious when asked for a favor. Mika is hoping she will buy out her spot in John’s prepaid English lessons.
John’s “school” is a room in a Yakuza owned love hotel, where he gives his students English names and ridiculous wigs to wear. Yet, somehow, being the blonde Lucy is liberating for Setsuko. Takeshi Komori, or “Tom,” a widowed ex-cop, also enjoys the informality and hugging. Frankly, he could be perfect for Setsuko, but when John and Mika abscond with her lesson fees back to America, she perversely decides to chase after him. To make things even more awkward, Ayako invites herself along to give her daughter a piece of her mind. However, when the arrive at their last known address, they find John has been dumped and abandoned by Mika. Now he is just a pathetic stoner on the verge of eviction, but Setsuko/Lucy is still interested.
Oh Lucy is a fix-up of Hirayanagi’s award-winning short. Basically, she took the crowd-pleasing English lesson gags and added a bunch of tragic reality. The result is a sad and wise character study that shares a distant but legit kinship with Kumiko the Treasure Hunter.
Shinobu Terajima totally deserves her Independent Spirit nomination for her portrayal of Kawashima. She has a tricky tight-rope to walk. She is achingly vulnerable, yet also a little off, but not in a conspicuous way that prompts viewers to keep their guard up. In a way, the role of John represents Josh Harnett’s career arc. At first, he looks hip and handsome, but then he becomes rather sad—yet there are still flashes of the old charm that shine through. Regardless how well he relates to the part, this is some of his best work in years.
Hirayanagi has two more aces up her sleeve. Kaho Minami (currently married to Ken Watanabe) is wonderfully tart as Ayako, but she also plays her smart and self-aware. Of course, Kôji Yakusho is money in the bank as “Tom” Komori, whom he plays with sensitivity and goofiness without compromising his manly screen persona one whit. Megan Mullally kills a brief cameo, but Reiko Aylesworth (Michelle Dessler in 24) is frustratingly under-employed as John’s ex.
Traditionally, it is the salarymen whose angst has been grist for cinema, so it is nice to see the frustrations of office ladies get some equal time. Even with its eccentricities, this is a messily realistic film that deliberately zigs when we want it to zag. That’s life folks. Hirayanagi and Terajima show that it can be both ugly and beautiful. Very highly recommended, Oh Lucy! opens tomorrow (3/2) in New York, at the Landmark 57 West and the Village East.