We meet Jesse (Michael Dorman), the protagonist of Hard Luck Love Song, at the lowest point of his life—the most recent one, anyway. He lies bleeding in an alleyway, having been roughed up by who knows who, and probably not for the first time.
The film then flashes back a few days, showing us the moment Jesse first blew into the outskirts of Los Angeles from Texas, wearing a cast on his wrist. Jesse’s an aspiring songwriter and an accomplished drunk, and his arrival here suggests it’s just the latest stop in an endless, aimless drift. He holes up in a seedy motel with a perpetually flickering sign, where he spends his days plucking out tunes on his acoustic guitar, and his evenings cruisin’ for a bruisin’ from the locals he hustles down at the pool hall. There’s a girl, too: Carla (Sophia Bush), the one that got away. One night, Jesse stumbles across Carla’s number in the back-page escort ads and gives her a call. They get together in Jesse’s motel room, catching up over mezcal and cocaine, doing a bit of reminiscing and a whole lot of recrimination.
It all sounds like a country song, because it is: Todd Snider’s “Just Like Old Times,” in fact. Austin-raised writer-director Justin Corsbie, in his feature debut, has turned Snider’s wry, bittersweet tune into a full-blown movie, adapting a four-minute song with more fidelity than some filmmakers apply to entire novels. (You can learn just how faithful his interpretation is during the end credits, when Snider performs “Just Like Old Times” live, essentially recapping everything that’s come before.) Naturally, Hard Luck Love Song takes a far more meandering route toward telling the same story that Snider pulls off with a clever lyrical twist. But for those drawn to hardfisted tales about down-on-their-luck troubadours drinkin’, fightin’, and lovin’—country music fans, in other words—that’s probably just fine. They’ll likely be content to linger inside its warm and scruffy atmospheres for a while.
Corsbie certainly knows that world. The 41-year-old director was born and raised in Austin—just blocks from Townes Van Zandt’s trailer home, according to the film’s press notes. Corsbie spent his childhood tagging along with his mom to all the city’s fabled singer-songwriter haunts, soaking up sets by Guy Clark and Lucinda Williams. Hard Luck Love Song feels authentically immersed in that kind of juke-joint lore, not least in its wall-to-wall needle-drops from Jerry Jeff Walker and Gram Parsons. At times, it feels less like a film than an extended music video, with Corsbie allowing the soundtrack do most of the emotional lifting while the camera languishes in the whiskey fumes and cigarette smoke. (These people never stop smoking.)
Because it is a movie, however, Corsbie also adds a few verses of his own to Snider’s song. Inevitably, Jesse ends up hustling the wrong guy: a grizzled, gold-toothed thug named Rollo, played by erstwhile rom-com star Dermot Mulroney in some impressively committed dirtbag drag. Carla also has a pimp, played by RZA, who shows up near the film’s end to take back his property. This confluence of dangerous men, along with the ever-present pain of their past, threatens to wreck Jesse and Carla’s second-chance reunion before it’s barely begun. And as we already know from that opening scene, they won’t get through the night without a little bloodshed.
These are all some fairly well-worn tropes, and Hard Luck Love Song leans into them passionately, without pretension. Even perennial B-movie presence Eric Roberts shows up, just as you’d expect from this kind of late-night-cable potboiler. The film’s only true curveball is a nosy cop, played by The Wolf of Wall Street’s Brian Sacca, who seems to have wandered over from a nearby Judd Apatow comedy. His attempts to buddy up to Jesse—including some bonding over a Seinfeld reference—add an unexpected touch of postmodern cringe comedy to what is an otherwise fairly rote dive-bar romance.
Nevertheless, as with any good song, it’s all about the little details, as well as the general feeling they create. Corsbie approaches the film’s neo-noir notes like he’s the first to ever play them, rendering every frame in sad, saturated blues and cold neon greens, and always finding the most cinematic depth of shadow from his streetlights and stained-glass swag lamps. There’s also a lengthy pool sequence that’s shot with more bravado than anyone’s probably given the game since The Color of Money. Nothing about Hard Luck Love Song is particularly new or surprising, but there’s an obvious love and attention behind it. It never feels inauthentic.
It also finds a genuine star in Dorman, who so effortlessly inhabits the Texan drifter Jesse that it’s hard to believe the actor is from New Zealand. Jesse’s a tattooed punk in a ratty Dead Milkmen T-shirt, a guy who likes to position himself as rebellious and alienated; early on, he even tries out a line from Five Easy Pieces on a diner waitress. (She doesn’t get the reference.) But he’s also charismatic and kind, an amiable drunk who speaks in a soft mumble and is quick to offer bear hugs to everyone, even vagrants on the street. Carla is, unfortunately, somewhat less developed. We’re told repeatedly that she’s “something special,” although it’s never clear exactly what’s so special about her beyond Carla’s unwavering support for Jesse, or the fact that she looks like Sophia Bush.
Still, both actors have a naturally lived-in chemistry that makes Carla and Jesse worth rooting for as they stumble their way toward happiness (or something like it). Their love story might be riddled with clichés, and the chord changes may feel a tad predictable. But then, country music fans tend not to mind.