The movie opens with Lucas’ character (who is unnamed but referred to in the credits as, no fucking joke, The Young Mariner), buying a boat. He’s wearing a business suit and when the seller asks if he’s divorced, he ups the amount of gravel in his voice and growls, “No,” which all but telegraphs the “big reveal” behind his character. Thus begins the first section of the movie, which plays like a really uninteresting mash-up of “The Money Pit” and “Leaving Las Vegas,” as Lucas attempts to get used to life on the boat (he lives there too, of course, another big hint about how existentially dire his circumstances are) and drinks a lot of briny booze. These scenes lack flow and are tonally unbalanced – a sequence where his shower conks out and he’s forced to run into town all soapy and half-nude is right up against another where he’s drunkenly reading from “The Odyssey,” at one point turning the book towards the camera and showing it an illustration.
You can tell that there’s real depth to Lucas’ performance and his earnestness shows through even when, in the film’s most brutally laughable scene, he hangs off of his boat, tempting fate (he’s already nearly-drowned at least once, but saved by a rascally sailor played by James Cromwell), and director Chris Eyre makes the boneheaded decision to superimpose images of Lucas’ wife and child (tragically killed even though we haven’t actually be told this yet) in the water. Not like their ghostly visages are floating through the murky depths, more like moving images of them, in happier times, projected on top of the water, like they’re part of a laser light show or maybe a very elaborate slideshow.
Lucas struggles to maintain his dignity through scenes like one where a local grocery store check out girl (Casey LaBow) comes to him after her boyfriend beats her up, looking for sage advice; or the countless awkward, near-romantic encounters with a waitress (Ayelet Zurer), who fancies the mysterious stranger (and quotes “The Children’s Hour” at length – one of the film’s few flourishes that makes any kind of impact). At 80 minutes, the movie is far too elliptical for such a brief running time, and towards the end starts schizophrenically shuttling between painful obscurity and on-the-nose explicitness. We’re supposed to watch Lucas’ character grow and change, to deal with the pain in his past and construct for himself a more stable future. But instead the movie often gets bogged down in either focusing on the daily minutiae of his new waterlogged life, or taking lingering looks at the wintery Michigan locations.
By the time the movie reaches its somewhat belabored conclusion, you’re just happy that it’s coming to an end, and stuck wondering what the folks at SXSW found so captivating (it was an award winner in 2011). Lucas gives a fine performance amidst all the sappy nonsense (for the first half of the movie it’s pretty much a one-man show) and you can speculate about what he could have done with that character if saddled with a script and direction that actually benefited his performance. As it stands, it’s just another link in the why-isn’t-Josh-Lucas-a-movie star chain, a fine performance in the midst of a crummy movie. [D]