‘Hard Luck Love Song’ Treads Familiar Ground, but Does it Well
Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits inform us that the film is based on Todd Snider’s 2006 song, “Just Like Old Times”. This caused me to stop the film before it ever really got started. I was initially stumped…other than Christmas and Elvis movies, what others were based on a song? I spent a few minutes thinking and came up with Alice’s Restaurant (1969, Arlo Guthrie song), The Indian Runner (1991, based on Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”), Ode to Billy Joe (1976, Bobbie Gentry’s song about that Tallahatchie Bridge), and of course, Convoy (1978, C.W. McCall’s annoying song). To my surprise, it turns out a movie based on a song is uncommon, but certainly not rare. I’m sure you can come up with others.
Director and co-writer (with first-time screenwriter Craig Ugoretz) Justin Corsbie grew up in Austin, the live-music capital of Texas, so it’s only fitting that he would deliver a movie about a dreamer who never realizes his dream of songwriting and performing. In fact, Jesse (Michael Dorman, The Invisible Man, 2020) probably would be considered a “loser” by most. He certainly drinks too much. Drugs are not off-limits. He tells lies with ease in social situations. And he ruined the best relationship he ever had, although he was too drunk to remember how it happened. Despite those “flaws,” Jesse is a pretty easy guy to like – quick with a smile and a hug.
Jesse doesn’t work as hard at songwriting as he should, but he does have a knack for hustling games in pool halls. One particularly big score puts him at odds with local baddie Rollo, played by mohawked and grilled-out Dermot Mulroney, looking about the roughest he’s ever looked. Once he slides out the backdoor to escape, Jesse immediately calls Carla (Sophie Bush, “Chicago P.D.”), his one-that-got-away. When they meet up at his room at the Tumble Inn (as cheap as it sounds), he tells her he’s on a lucky streak and “I’m doing good now.” They fall into a natural and familiar rhythm of old habits that include booze and drugs. Carla knows Jesse better than he knows himself, but she can’t help the attraction.
Of course, Jesse and Carla never have a smooth evening. First, Officer Zach (Brian Sacca, The Wolf of Wall Street) knocks on the door after a noise complaint, and searches the room. It’s another Jesse interaction that pays off later. Next, while visiting the bar where she works, Carla and Jesse cross paths with her boss Skip (Eric Roberts playing Eric Roberts), and bartender Sally (the always great Melora Walters (Magnolia). And yet we knew it was only a matter of time until Rollo and his crew would track down Jesse.
The confrontation gets ugly and violent and noisy, and we meet our final key character in Louis (RZA, American Gangster, 2007), who is Carla’s boyfriend with a certain talent that comes in handy for Jesse. It’s an odd ending befitting the characters. Filmmaker Corsbie has a feel for the underbelly of music towns like Austin, train wreck characters like Jesse, and bad seed relationships of the “can’t live with him – can’t live without him” type. Extra points are scored for the Five Easy Pieces nod, and Ms. Bush and Mr. Dorman perform admirably. A clip of Todd Snider performing his song plays over the closing credits, and we can’t help but chuckle at how the lyrics mirror what we just watched. A nice final touch.