Ellie (Toni Collette), a journalist for music magazine Stax, has just been informed by her editor Giles (Oliver Platt) that she has one last chance to save her job. All she has to do is write a story about her rocker ex-boyfriend Matthew Smith who mysteriously disappeared years ago and is believed dead. Before his disappearance, he was a beloved music icon like Kurt Cobain, and since his apparent death, he has become a legend, influencing a whole generation of musicians. With the help of her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Thomas Haden Church), an aspiring documentary filmmaker, Ellie sets out to find out if Matthew is still alive and if he is, where he has been hiding all these years. Her attempts to find closure, however, are complicated by her feelings for Lucas (Ryan Eggold), an up-and-coming singer-songwriter.
Lucky Them is a music movie with the perfect backdrop of the Portland music scene, and the premise is promising, combining romance, mystery, and an odd-couple road trip. Ellie and Charlie couldn’t be more different, a snobbish music critic and a wealthy square with too much time and money on his hands. To his credit, Thomas Haden Church makes Charlie incredibly likable with his deadpan delivery and generosity despite his obvious privilege. He is wealthy and bored, and he has the time and resources to change career paths at whim. He can take up photography for a year before he gets antsy or realizes his limitations, and then he moves onto the next creative pursuit of the moment. Church as Charlie is at his best when he realizes he is a bit out of his depth, but he chooses to dive in anyway. One of the funniest moments of the film is when Charlie shows up for their first day of filming with a gigantic mobile home. Did he buy it on a whim? Of course! Does he know how to drive it? Well, not really.
Aside from Church’s performance, the film’s other strongest selling point is the mystery of Matthew Smith. The backstory between Ellie and Matthew has some nice surprises, including that they first met as teens at fat camp. They fell in love, and Matthew sang one of his first songs at the camp’s talent show. (In my head canon, Ellie and Matthew were Willamena and Ian from the short-lived TV show Huge, another pair of music lovers who met at fat camp.) The more I learned about Matthew, the more I wanted to know more about him and the circumstances that led to Matthew and Ellie’s separation. Without spoiling anything, the reveal of Matthew Smith is by far the highlight of the whole film.
Unfortunately, the weakest parts of Lucky Them were the parts I expected to be the strongest. A movie centered on the Portland music scene should have an amazing soundtrack, perhaps a mix of classic bands that got their start in the city and some newer songwriters on the verge of a big break. For me, the soundtrack was underwhelming and unmemorable. At one point in the film, Lucas sings a song written for Ellie, but I honestly cannot remember it.
The other weak element of Lucky Them is the character of Ellie. Toni Collette tries her best, but the character of Ellie is flawed in ways that don’t totally add up. I love stories that take a risk and make their female characters unsympathetic, but I only like those characters if their actions and motives make sense. The character of Ellie and other script problems like an unnecessary love interest for Charlie might have been fixed with another draft. As it is, the film is uneven, and considering the talent involved, Lucky Them should have been something truly special instead of what it is, which is merely okay.
One last note, I don’t know why Ellie wasn’t fired from Stax. For being a music journalist, there is only one scene where she is actually doing her job, a story trope that Cameron Crowe poked fun at in Almost Famous. To be honest, I was hoping that Giles would just fire her already, giving my best impression of Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator.