“Lush” is a quirky, off-center, picaresque tale with a self-defeatingly disdainful attitude toward audience involvement in story or character. First feature by writer-director Mark Gibson lurches from one incident to the next much in the manner of its inebriated leads, and pic’s resultant aimless feel and lack of momentum make this an indie also-ran commercially.
Gibson first conceived of this project as a novel, and it’s easy to imagine that his whimsical approach to narrative and evident interest in incidental details and oblique character insight could find a more receptive audience among readers of modern fiction. But the combo of disregard for viewer needs plus inharmonious blend of genres makes for an unholy stew that is scarcely offset by the film’s colorful visual style and occasional behavioral niceties.
Curious little tale has pro golfer and ex-con Lionel “Ex” Exley (Campbell Scott) turning up in New Orleans, ostensibly to collect his golf clubs, and falling in with some dissolute upper-class types, most notably alcoholic lawyer W. Firmin Carter (Jared Harris), who keeps photographs of famous suicides in his study and seems just an extra drink away from joining them. Ex is no slouch in the boozing department himself, having essentially washed out of the pro tour as a result, and has plenty of opportunity to indulge at downtown dives as well as at the country club with dripping-rich divorcee Rachel Van Dyke (Laura Linney), who gives Ex a tumble.
Gibson at the outset establishes a hyper-realistic, exaggerated approach that sets up expectations of stylized farce. But things never approach laugh-out-loud funny, and one has long since begun wondering where all this is headed when, at the halfway point, story takes a melodramatic turn with Firmin’s disappearance and evident demise. Interrogations and a silly subplot involving some lowlifes’ interest in an insurance policy are rendered irrelevant when Firmin suddenly resurfaces, Ex turns his attention to Rachel’s foxy sister, Ashley (Laurel Holloman), and one is eventually left with a story that ineffectively trades on the idea of how seemingly haphazard events have a way of working themselves out and making a certain kind of sense.
Scott sallies forth valiantly, trying to extract winsome mirth from a character that inspires little interest or sympathy. Harris and Linney play narrow upper-class types that surprise occasionally through their imperious behavior, while Holloman appears promising despite limited dramatic opportunities here.
Making her American feature debut, ace French lenser Caroline Champetier, who has worked with Godard, Rivette, Techine, Despleschin and other top directors, saturates the story in bold, vivid colors, creating a rich visual palette that unfortunately is not matched by the script.