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The best country songs are simple, direct and unpretentious. The same could be said of Justin Corsbie’s feature debut, based not on a book or a play but rather a song: Todd Snider’s “Just Like Old Times.” The tale of a wandering troubadour afflicted by addiction, gambling and romantic problems, Hard Luck Love Song comes across like, well, a movie based on a country song. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but don’t expect something particularly revelatory.
That the film proves engrossing throughout is due largely to Michael Dorman (For All Mankind), in the central role of Jesse. The New Zealand-born actor, adopting an effective American accent, proves a charismatic presence as the sort of scruffily handsome, guitar-playing bad boy for whom women would be willing to abandon all common sense. Early in the film, he establishes his rebel bona fides when, during an awkward ordering session at a diner, he tells his waitress to “hold the chicken salad.” The uncomprehending server doesn’t recognize the reference to Five Easy Pieces, but cineastes sure will.
Hard Luck Love Song
It’s also made clear early on that Jesse has a heart of gold. Shortly after arriving in a dusty town with his arm in a cast (not a harbinger of good things to come), he finds a $100 bill on the street. After buying himself cigarettes and a bottle of quality booze, he makes sure to give a hefty handout to a vagrant, accompanied by a reassuring hug.
Jesse augments his meager singer-songwriter income as a pool hustler, his aw-shucks demeanor effectively fooling his marks. But he picks the wrong victim in the form of Rollo (a scary Dermot Mulroney, effectively leaving his romantic comedy leading man image behind), who makes clear his feelings about the matter. “I don’t like getting hustled,” Rollo tells him. “And things that I don’t like wind up in a hole in the fucking desert.”
Jesse barely escapes with his life, but if he did the sensible thing, like immediately leaving town, the screenwriters would be hard-pressed to come up with a suspenseful conclusion. Instead, he hangs around at a cheap motel, and reunites with his former girlfriend Carla (Sophia Bush), now working as a prostitute. The two share a tense but affectionate reunion fueled by mezcal and cocaine before heading to a local bar, where Jesse meets several of her friends, including the protective Skip (Eric Roberts, continuing his record-breaking pursuit of appearing in more movies than any actor alive). Jesse eventually has a violent run-in with Rollo and his gang, as well as Carla’s pimp (RZA), who doesn’t want to lose his meal ticket.
The film hews closely to the lyrics in Snider’s song, and even when it deviates, the dialogue sounds like something you’d hear on country radio. Asked to talk about himself, Skip begins by announcing “I was born in a Mexican whorehouse,” and you find yourself waiting for the steel guitar to chime in.
As with many country songs, the story feels terribly familiar. But director/co-screenwriter Corsbie, who grew up in Austin (he was “born in an unairconditioned house,” we’re informed in the production notes), clearly knows the milieu. The film, much of which takes place in smoke-filled pool-hall juke joints, boasts seedy atmosphere to spare. You can almost smell the cheap beer and cigarettes while watching it. Another plus is the terrific Americana soundtrack, culminating with an onscreen performance by Snider of the song that inspired the film. The droll lyrics play like a wittily deadpan musical recap of what we’ve just seen.
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Production: Dime Box Entertainment, Synthetic Pictures
Cast: Michael Dorman, Sophia Bush, Dermot Mulroney, RZA, Eric Roberts, Melora Walters, Brian Sacca
Director: Justin Corsbie
Screenwriters: Justin Corsbie, Craig Ugoretz
Producers: Allison R. Smith, Justin Corsbie, Douglas Matejka
Executive producers: Peter J. Scalettar, Christian Monti, Ronny Scruggs, Shay Scurggs, Todd Snider, Burt Stein
Director of photography: Jas Shelton
Production designer: Marie Jach
Costume designer: Selenia Rios
Editor: J. Davis
Composers: Will Blair, Brooke Blair
Casting: Sunday Boling, Meg Morman
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