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‘Lucky’ break: The perfect farewell film sends off Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton stars in "Lucky." | MAGNOLIA PICTURES

“Lucky” is Harry Dean Stanton’s last role, a rare leading performance, and it is a treasure.

The film by John Carroll Lynch is a meandering affair, more or less an hour and a half spent with a cranky old man as he slowly, reluctantly comes to terms with his own mortality, which seems to be a notion he hadn’t much considered previously.

It wasn’t meant to serve as a posthumous tribute to the great Stanton, who died in September, but it does the job perfectly.

Writers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja sprinkle liberal amounts of Stanton’s biography into the script — his real-life service in World War II figures in a key scene. That’s interesting as far as it goes, but the real joy here is simply in watching Stanton be Stanton, something Lynch generously lets him be throughout.

Lucky is a 90-year-old man who lives in a ramshackle house. He has a routine, punctuated by constant smoking: He gets up, practices his personalized form of yoga, drinks a glass of milk (which he replaces in the refrigerator just so) and heads out. He eats what appears to be about a five-hour lunch at the local diner, doing a crossword puzzle and cutting up with Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), the owner, and Loretta (Yvonne Huff), the waitress.

He stops by the store to get milk, returns home and watches game shows on his television, yelling at the contestants (“There goes your f—ing Buick!”). Later in the evening he sits down at the town bar for a few drinks with the locals. One is Howard, played by David Lynch, who directed Stanton several times. Howard has lost his tortoise (NOT his turtle), President Roosevelt, and he’s about one more drink away from distraught. Elaine (Beth Grant) owns the joint, and her husband Paulie (James Darren) whiles away the hours with the group, drinking and talking.

And fighting. Lucky is given to the occasional pronouncement, and he doesn’t appreciate disagreement.

The routine rarely varies, until one day when Lucky falls. His doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) finds nothing in particular wrong with him, despite his constant smoking and drinking (he’s perfectly healthy), other than the simple fact that he is getting old.

That diagnosis, if you can call it that, strikes a chord in Lucky. It doesn’t alter his life in any substantial way, not outwardly. But we see a subtle shift. In one scene he encounters another World War II veteran (Tom Skerritt) at the diner and joins him for a cup of coffee. They talk about their experiences, but for much of the conversation Lucky just listens. The look on Stanton’s face is amazing, drinking in what the man says, remembering what he remembers but keeping it to himself, his eyes expressing pain and pride.

It’s a perfect example of what made Stanton such a great actor – he gives the scene over almost completely to Skerritt, but his simple act of listening is the most compelling thing about it.

Later Lucky attends a birthday party and winds up singing a song in Spanish with a mariachi band (in real life Stanton sang and played in bands). At first the guests laugh. Who is this old man standing up there singing? But as he continues, they stop and listen, and then they’re moved. It’s a beautiful scene, and it, too, says a lot about Stanton. At first he comes across as a little strange and you wonder what he’s up to. Before long you’re engrossed in what he’s doing, and then transported.

“Lucky” works in much the same way. It’s a terrific sendoff.

Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network

★★★1⁄2

Magnolia Pictures presents a film directed by John Carroll Lynch and written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja. No MPAA rating. Running time: 88 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.