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Shinobu Terajima in 'Oh Lucy!' [Film Movement]

Movie review: A woman searches for happiness in charming ‘Oh, Lucy!’

In addressing a vastly underserved segment of society, the slight-but-smart “Oh Lucy!” cuts straight to the heart of how daunting life can be if you’re an unmarried, middle-aged woman stuck in a dead-end job. Taken at face value, writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s slice of cross-cultural life is a dramedy that takes a somewhat unflattering view of American life through Japanese eyes. But look closer and you’ll find an often moving examination of how both nations overtly marginalize menopausal women like Shinobu Terajima’s office drone, Setsuko.

Her one chance at love was stolen away by her constantly haranguing sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami). That was years ago, but the wound it left has yet to heal. If anything, Setsuko has only allowed it to fester. But the only person her unhappiness is hurting is herself. If only she could see the very savvy, intelligent woman we see. Hirayanagi provides her that opportunity via a somewhat contrived plot in which Setsuko’s flighty, 20-something niece, Mika (a gorgeous Shioli Kutsuna), attempts to finagle 600,000 yen (roughly $5,600 in U.S. dollars) out of her aunt by convincing her to assume her place in a yearlong, nonrefundable membership in a Tokyo-set English class taught by John, a hunky American played with eccentric charm by a never-better Josh Hartnett.

Setsuko, incapable of saying “no” to anything, agrees to fork over the cash, no doubt because she instantly falls madly in love with her Yank tutor, who has redubbed her Lucy and fitted her with an awful blonde wig that makes her look like an Asian Harpo Marx. John, as part of his unorthodox curriculum, also likes to hug, regularly gathering tiny Setsuko, err Lucy, up into his big American arms for embraces that instantly reignite her long-dormant flame. In other words — she’s hot for teacher. But as it quickly becomes clear, teacher has the hots for Mika, who he plans to whisk off to L.A. using the money Setsuko fronted his Japanese paramour for the class.

These obvious machinations — including one involving Setsuko’s one and only classmate, the handsome-and-available widower Tom (Koji Yakusho, outstanding) — pose a serious threat to credulity. But just as you’re about to dismiss “Oh Lucy!” as just another over-thought indie dud out of the Sundance workshop factory, Hirayanagi’s film comes suddenly alive when Setsuko and her boyfriend-stealing sister, Ayako, hop the next plane to California. For the latter, the trip is a mission to retrieve her wayward daughter. But for Setsuko, it’s a chance to continue her misguided play for John — and possibly settling a score with Ayako by stealing her daughter’s boyfriend the same way Ayako stole Mika’s father from her.

What ensues is the typical “Crocodile Dundee” culture shock in which foreigners eagerly thrust themselves into the wackiness of America’s unique way of life. You know, letting us see ourselves through fresh eyes. That stuff is tedious if not trite. But where “Oh Lucy!” goes for the throat is in its eloquent examinations of John and Setsuko as two broken people unwittingly helping each other find out who they are and what they want from life.

The results are both funny and liberating, albeit cut with an underlying sadness that reminds that their personal journeys of discovery and renewal affect others, sometimes negatively. Their comeuppances are as heartbreaking as they are profound, with the message being you’re never too old to reinvent yourself. And these are the moments when Hirayanagi — abetted by Terajima’s wonderful mix of weariness and naivety — excels as both a writer and director. She knows from where she speaks, having grown up in Japan before attending college in New York City. It enables her to thrive in the details of the little things that both separate and unite Americans and our Japanese allies. Yes, it’s a small world after all.

You need no more confirmation of that than a glance at the movie’s executive producers, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, the crown princes of poking fun at America’s warped values through great entertainments like “The Big Short,” “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” It’s astonishing how smoothly “Oh Lucy!” fits right into their oeuvre. It’s simultaneously silly and telling, cut through with unexpected emotion and satirical bite. Like one of John’s big hugs, it gathers you in and squeezes tight as you melt under the power of its existential grip.

“Oh Lucy!”

Cast includes Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Koji Yakusho and Shioli Kutsuna. (In English and Japanese with English subtitles.)

(Not rated)

Grade: B

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