October 26, 2021
by Carla Hay
“Hard Luck Love Song” wants viewers to believe it’s a gritty and realistic portrait of an American drifter, but the movie falls apart in the last 30 minutes, with one unrealistic scenario after another. Sophia Bush, who shares top billing in the movie, doesn’t even appear on screen in “Hard Luck Love Song” until 44 minutes into this 104-minute film. Expect to see a lot of pointless footage of aimless main character Jesse Richardson (played by Michael Dorman), as he lives out of a motel and tries to figures out a way to get easy cash.
This is a movie that would’ve been better as a short film. Maybe that’s because “Hard Luck Love Song” (the feature-film directorial debut of Justin Corsbie) was inspired by a song: 2006’s “Just Like Old Times” by Americana singer/songwriter Todd Snider. It’s an interesting but somewhat gimmicky story for how this movie was conceived. Unfortunately, the “Hard Luck Love Song” screenplay (written by Corsbie and Craig Ugoretz) doesn’t live up to the potential of being a compelling tale of people who don’t have much hope in their lives while living on the fringes of society.
Jesse (who is in his late 30s) is one of those people who seems to be down on their luck, but the movie slowly reveals that his “bad luck” is actually the culmination of his bad decisions in life. A native of Texas, Jesse has been struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol for years. Jesse has also been trying for years to make it in the music business as a singer/songwriter (he performs country-ish Americana music), but he remains unknown and broke. And now, Jesse is homeless and trying to find ways to make enough cash to get through any given week.
The movie (which takes place in an unnamed Texas city) opens with Jesse driving in his car and heading to wherever he can find a cheap place to stay and a job that doesn’t care about doing background checks. (Jesse has a prison record.) Jesse checks into a motel and peruses the want ads in a newspaper. He ends up driving to a bunch of seedy-looking bars in the area and applies for jobs where they’re looking to hire people.
In the meantime, Jesse needs cash fast. Luckily for him, he has other skills besides playing the guitar and writing songs, since he can’t find work as a musician. Jesse is also a very talented pool player. And so, the first hour of the movie is about Jesse winning money in pool games at one dive bar after another. (He wins more than he loses.)
During one of these pool games, Jesse finds out about an informal pool tournament that happens every first Saturday of the month at a bar called Broadway Social. At this tournament, Jesse excels and wins $3,000 as the grand prize. However, one of the people he defeated in the tournament takes the loss very hard and decides he’s going to get his money back from Jesse any way that he can.
This sore loser is a thug named Rollo (played by Dermot Mulroney), who has two sidekick goons: a short, weaselly character named Pete (played by Zac Badasci) and a hulking brute named Bump (played by Randal Reedner), who no doubt got his nickname because he likes to snort “bumps” of cocaine. Rollo, Pete and Bump surround Jesse and pressure him to play another game of pool with Rollo, with the obvious intention of getting the prize money from Jesse.
Jesse has enough street smarts to know that this forced pool game will not end well for him. And so, there’s a somewhat suspenseful sequence showing how Jesse deals with this situation. One of the movie’s flaws is that it seems like it wants to be two different stories about the same character. One story is about Jesse’s struggles to get money. That story then gets abandoned and segues to the other story, which is about Jesse’s drama-filled reunion with an ex-girlfriend.
The first 60% of the movie is about Jesse and his search for ways to make some easy cash. He’s never seen working at an actual job. It seems to be a longtime pattern for him that he’s incapable of keeping steady employment. This part of the movie is just scene after scene of chain-smoking Jesse wandering from bar to bar and playing pool.
When he’s in his motel alone, Jesse plays his guitar and chain smokes some more. Dorman does his own singing in the movie, including an original song (“I’ll Be Your Honky Tonk”) that the wrote. He’s a good singer, but not great.
After winning the $3,000 in the pool tournament, Jesse’s first action indicates that he’d rather spend the money on some indulgences instead of saving the money or spending it on necessary expenses. One of the first things he does is look in a local rag newspaper’s back pages, where escorts are advertising their services. (Jesse is so broke, he doesn’t seem to have a smartphone, which explans why he relies on printed newspapers to read ads.)
Jesse calls one of the women who’s in these escort ads. Her alias is Cottontail, but her real name is Carla (played by Bush). When Jesse calls her, she seems to be surprised to hear from him. He invites Carla over for drinks. At first she’s reluctant, but then she agrees. While he talks to her on the phone, tears roll down his face. And that’s the first big clue that Jesse and Carla have some unfinished business.
At a nearby convenience store, Jesse has made the acquaintance of a store clerk named Benny (played by Taylor Gray), who notices that Jesse seems to be in a very good mood when Jesse comes up to the cash register to buy liquor. Benny can tell that Jesse likes to party, so Benny asks Jesse if he wants to be hooked up with something stronger than alcohol. Jesse says yes. And after Jesse assures Benny that he wasn’t a cop wearing any surveillance equipment (Jesse lifts up his shirt as proof), Benny sells Jesse some cocaine.
Jesse’s plan is to party with Carla by drinking and doing cocaine with her. And when she shows up at the motel, it’s obvious that this type of partying is familiar activity for both of them, even though they haven’t seen each other in years. Carla is initially reluctant to do cocaine with Jesse, but eventually she does.
What’s the story with Carla? She is Jesse’s ex-girlfriend from high school. They’ve known each other since before they were in high school. And they’ve had a dysfunctional, on-again/off-again relationship for years. Lately, because of Jesse’s drug problems and prison time, the relationship has been most definitely “off.”
However, Carla showed up for this rendezvous for a reason. Does she want to get back together with Jesse, or is she just paying him a visit out of curiosity? And is she a prostitute? Jesse wants answers to those questions and he gets them, even though he isn’t completely honest with Carla at first.
Jess lies to Carla by saying he’s an in-demand songwriter. He flashes her some of the cash he won and tells her it’s some of the payment he’s gotten for songwriting. Carla is no fool though, because she can see that the dumpy motel where Jesse is staying is an obvious sign that he’s struggling financially. At first Carla and Jesse’s reunion is filled with awkward tension, but they loosen up a lot when they get drunk and high together.
During this night of partying, Carla takes Jesse to a bar where she says that she works. It’s here that Jesse meets Carla’s bar boss Skip (played by Eric Roberts), who tells Jesse that he’s very protective of Carla because she’s a good person. Carla’s best friend at the bar is named Gypsy Sally (played by Melora Walters), who knows about Carla’s turbulent history with Jesse and warns her to be careful about getting involved with him again.
The main problem with “Hard Luck Love Song” is that at several points in the movie, viewers will ask themselves, “Where is this story going?” There’s a rambling style to the film that’s filled with a lot of generic dialogue. Dorman and Bush are perfectly adequate in their roles (Jesse and Carla are both emotionally damaged in their own ways), but these actors’ performances aren’t enough to make this plodding story more compelling.
“Hard Luck Love Song” goes from mediocre to bad with the mishandling of two particular characters. One is a cop named Officer Zach (played by Brian Sacca), who shows up at Jesse’s motel room when Carla is there. (Carla and Jesse predictably scramble to hide the cocaine.) Officer Zach is there in response to noise complaints because apparently Jesse and Carla were being too loud in playing music and laughing during their coke-and-alcohol-fueled party.
The first clue that Officer Zach is unrealistically written is that he shows up with no cop partner for backup. It might be excused if this is a small town with a small police force, but it’s still unrealistic. And then, Officer Zach tells Jesse that he wouldn’t mind partying with Jesse if he could, but he can’t because he’s on duty. What kind of cop on duty says that to a stranger he just met in response to a noise complaint? It’s possible but still far-fetched.
It gets worse with the other badly written character. When Carla arrived at the motel, Jesse looked out the window and saw a man lurking and watching Carla as she went to Jesse’s room. Jesse eventually finds out that this stranger’s name is Louis (played by RZA), and Jesse’s first impression of Louis is that Louis is Carla’s pimp. Without giving away any spoiler information, it’s enough to say that Louis does know Carla. The nature of their relationship is revealed in the last 15 minutes of the movie.
One of the worst things about “Hard Luck Love Song” is that it has some negative racial stereotyping that could be considered offensive to African Americans. The reason why is because there’s only one black person with a noticeable speaking role in this movie, and it’s a role that is problematic and filled with terrible clichés. There’s a racially tinged conflict in the story which has someone showing up out of the blue in an “only in a movie” moment that will have viewers rolling their eyes or cringing at how stupid this scene is.
After having a “slice of life” tone for most of the movie, the tone abruptly shifts to melodrama and moronically staged violence toward the end of the movie. It’s a very clumsy transition, even though this violence is foreshadowed with a brief flash in the beginning of the film. The aftermath of some gun violence in the movie is handled in a completely ludicrous way. And the movie’s last scene is jarringly out-of-touch and phony, compared to the rest of the film. How everything ends feels tacked-on and completely dilutes the edginess that the movie intended to convey throughout most of the story.
“Hard Luck Love Song” is not a movie with much purpose, except to show the main characters trying to forget about all their bad decisions while they make more bad decisions. Just because Jesse sheds tears of regret doesn’t mean that viewers will have a lot of sympathy for him. Because the pivotal character of Carla arrives so late in the film, “Hard Luck Love Song” is mostly a tedious slog showing a loner whose life is on a wasted repeat loop. This movie’s lack of substance isn’t too surprising because it’s a 104-minute film based on a four-minute song. And the song is better than this movie.
Roadside Attractions released “Hard Luck Love Song” in U.S. cinemas on October 15, 2021. The movie’s premium video on demand (PVOD) release date is November 9, 2021. Lionsgate Home Entertainment will release “Hard Luck Love Song” on digital and VOD on December 21, 2021.