In an unfortunate parallel, a movie about a woman hunting the specter of a former romance is itself haunted by the ghosts of films past. Toni Collette is Ellie Klug, a burned out rock journalist who these days would rather bed a young singer-songwriter than advance his career. Her lovably cynical boss (Oliver Platt) gives her one last chance: solve the mystery of Matthew Smith, a phenomenally talented Jeff Buckley-type who disappeared 10 years ago.
The catch, naturally, is that when Smith left music, he left Ellie, too. Lucky Them is a pleasant love-and-music hero’s journey, but it cannot escape comparisons to Almost Famous or High Fidelity or any other classic of the genre, and being found wanting.
The main pleasure here is Charlie (Thomas Haden Church), Ellie’s millionaire friend who finances her Matthew Smith-seeking road trip. A mélange of modern eccentricities (no “live gluten,” please), Charlie gets most of the laughs thanks to Church’s signature deadpan delivery. And while Collette does her best to elevate the material, Ellie remains a kind of cipher. Time and care are not taken to establish her as irresistible or even interesting, so it makes little sense that men flock to her, and little payoff comes from her eventual epiphanies.
At least she doesn’t suffer the fate of Charlotte (Ahna O’Reilly), a bimbo too broadly written to be remotely credible. The tone deaf portrayal of women is a surprise and disappointment from a film with a too-rare combination of a female director and co-writer.
It’s a sad thought that this story might have worked better with the genders reversed, and that we may need our female protagonists to be likable in a way we don’t demand from their male counterparts. Ellie is in the same family tree as the too-mean Mavis Gary of Young Adult, a Diablo Cody creation.
Even more, she bears a resemblance to Elizabeth Wurtzel, the onetime Rolling Stone wunderkind who became famous for her memoir Prozac Nation. Her second, much less successful book was subtitled In Praise of Difficult Women. Ellie’s story would slip neatly into those pages. Wurtzel’s defining career move was exchanging criticism for navel-gazing, and similarly Ellie turns in a final piece which is more about her than the music.
This is unfortunate because the most compelling element of Lucky Them is not its cookie-cutter coming-of-belated-age, but the reminder that there are some who turn away from their gifts even at the height of their powers. Why would a protégé stop playing music? This story does not tell us. Likely it would be an answer too complex, or too simple, to be told in 90 minutes plus credits.