An unpretentious indie romance based on an alt-country tune about an alcoholic pool shark with a heart of gold and the bright-eyed hooker he’s been searching for at the bottom of every bottle since the old times ended, “Hard Luck Love Song” is the kind of movie that would sit right next to someone at the world’s saddest dive bar even if the place was full of nothing but empty seats. Justin Corsbie’s debut would buy you a drink if you couldn’t afford one, hustle you for a hundred bucks in the backroom if you could, and leave you with a big hug on the way out either way just cause it was so grateful not to spend the night alone.
This film has a story that it’s eager to share with anyone willing to listen, and while there isn’t a soul on Earth who hasn’t heard some rendition of “we found love in a hopeless place” a thousand times before, Michael Dorman’s charmingly tattered lead performance turns this into one of the most winsome cover versions we’ve heard in a long while. The hangdog energy of “Inside Llewyn Davis” looms heavy in this one from the very first shot, though Jesse (Dorman) wears it with puppy-like enthusiasm, and more closely resembles a scuzzier Garrett Hedlund than he does a cheerier Oscar Isaac.
We first lay eyes on him as he bleeds out of his face in a back alley somewhere north of Mexico, west of Mississippi, and not even a little close to where he ought to be. It’s obvious he has a broken arm from the cast on his wrist, and it’s obvious he has a broken heart from the way he cuts that thing off like he’s never going to heal right anyway.
We assume that Jesse is a musician — and not just because of the name of the movie he’s in — but the only equipment he seems to take on the road with him is the lucky pool cue he’ll use to pay for his room at the Tumble Inn. Odds are Jesse’s been living out of motels just like it for so long that he can’t remember the last time he slept in a bed that didn’t charge a nightly rate, but some people are just too afraid of what might catch them if they ever slow down and stay still. If this guy has been looking for the same girl these last few years, we get the sense that he hasn’t been looking that hard (the tender beauty of Dorman’s performance lies in how well he fools us, as the actor manipulates our affections as artfully as Jesse does those of everyone he hustles; but you can’t help but want him to get away with it, even when you’re the one being conned).
In fact, Jesse seems happy to be lost for the pleasantly ambling first half of this movie, during which he finds a $100 bill blowing in the wind, shares his good fortune with an unhoused stranger, and gets drunk enough to hug all the unamused old ladies at the late night taco shop. At no point along the way does he ever appear the least bit sorry for himself, even when he sings a weepy song in his motel room (okay, so he also travels with a guitar, but I swear it just seems to manifest from his situation when needed).
There’s definitely some genuine concern in his eyes after our hero snookers his way to a big cash prize at a sketchy pool tournament and runs afoul of the village goon squad — fronted by a chest-thumping Dermot Mulroney in full Stephen Lang mode — but fans of Todd Snider’s “Just Like Old Times” will already know what’s coming around the corner, as this movie remains faithful to the unusually plot-driven song that inspired it.
Jesse is flipping through the classified section at the back of a newspaper in search of a girl who might help him forget about his ex for an hour or two when he finds an ad for the real McCoy. The next thing he knows, Carla (Sophia Bush) is standing in his room looking every bit as sparkly as she did the last time he saw her and snorting “the least worst coke” he could find while her boyfriend/pimp (RZA) waits across the street. The rest of the film — the part of it that works, anyway — is essentially spent watching these burned-out beauties try to recapture the modest American dream they once found in each other. Where did things go wrong, and how much of their shared misfortune does Jesse have the power to change? “Hard luck is like stepping in dog shit,” he quotes an old friend from prison. “It can happen to anyone once. But after that, if you ain’t looking out for it, it’s your own damn fault.”
Corsbie and Craig Ugoretz’s unhurried screenplay never plumbs this story with the same depth as spiritual predecessors like “Paris, Texas,” but then again, what does? “Hard Luck Love Song” doesn’t bother to reach for those same high notes. This is a movie about people whose only remaining hope in the world is the off-chance they might be able to strum through it together, and it’s intoxicating enough just to watch them dance around each other and see who might take the lead.
Nevertheless, it’s only when they sing together that we fully appreciate why they feel as meant for each other as two parts of a harmony; an impromptu duet does more to fill in their backstory than any amount of exposition ever could (Bush and Dorman are both credible enough as musicians to suggest their characters could have gone places in another life). Carla wants so badly to believe that Jesse will change his gambling ways and go all-in on her, but she’s been bewitched by his music before — she knows all too well that a great song can make you feel things that fade away as soon as the music stops.
Corsbie’s steady hand suggests a filmmaker who’s patient enough to let this story dissolve into pure feeling and let the old times roll, but plot eventually gets the better of him as the last third of “Hard Luck Love Song” contrives a mighty strange road to the forever mood it’s searching for. Things start to fray as soon as a genial cop shows up for comic relief (Brian Sacca acquits himself well in an impossible role), laying the groundwork for a climactic shootout that Corsbie ill-advisably plays for laughs instead of horror.
Along the way, Carla and Jesse cross paths with a horny — but also very paternal — barfly played by Eric Roberts, witness a hilariously over-cranked fight scene in which every drunken punch lands so loudly it sounds like Jesse has stumbled into “Enter the Dragon,” and make a “Seinfeld” reference that would probably feel out of place even if this movie didn’t try to channel a more grounded time (Bush radiates a certain modernity, but this story predates a world in which estranged lovers could just slide into each other’s DMs).
Afraid of trailing off like its source material, “Hard Luck Love Song” fills its final verses with far too much noise — none of which gets it any closer to helping Carla and Jesse break out of their bad habits. On some level, however, Corsbie seems to recognize that he’s forcing the issue. He knows that his characters are looking for something they’ve found and lost a dozen times before, and his wincingly sweet debut makes us desperate for them to have that again, even if for just one night — even if the music always fades out when the sun comes up in the morning.
A Roadside Attractions release, “Hard Luck Love Song” is now playing in theaters.
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