So the story of ‘O Lucky Man’ concerns Mick Travis (played by Malcolm McDowell), a coffee salesman for the Imperial Coffee Company, who travels to the North East of England and then Scotland. During his odyssey he encounters various characters and institutions all seemingly representing various aspects of modern day, British capitalist society. These encounters challenge his principles although sticking to those principles results in his decline in society. Yet maybe there is a light at the end of this tunnel; some star to guide him or possibly even to manifest into? Will he get lucky?
Yet I think the real story of ‘O Lucky Man’ is this: Malcolm McDowell becomes super famous after ‘If…’ (1968) and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971). This success goes to his young head and, therefore, he starts thinking his life is worthy of being turned into a feature film. Lindsay Anderson, somewhat besotted and enamoured by the young star he helped create and flattered by the thought of appearing as a god-like figure in his own movie, agrees to make it. However, it soon becomes apparent that McDowell’s early life as a coffee salesman lacks any real intellectual weight so another writer is brought in to add extra layers of political and social satire whilst Anderson decides to use his bag of tricks he’s picked up from the Nouvelle Vague and European art-house cinema to add artistic cache, even though he originally wanted to make a film about Alan Price but hey, why not just the band in as some sort of Greek chorus and, hey presto, before anyone knows it they have a pretentious three hour mess on their hands.
That’s the big problem with ‘O Lucky Man’ and it comes right at the end when it declares — “Based on an idea by Malcolm McDowell”. Then everything — the self-indulgence, the self-congratulatory air, the empty political posturing — makes sense. It feels very much like nothing more than an idea stretched out to a three hour run-time with everything else just bolted on. Rather than an actual Pilgrim’s Progress ‘O Lucky Man’ is more an assembly of various encounters, all discreet units, that could easily all be rearranged in order with no discernable impact on how the film plays out overall. And that’s a problem.
At its best the film functions similarly, though not as effectively, as Roy Andersson’s stunning ‘Songs From The Second Floor’ (2000) as treacle-paced, stylised surrealism melds with social and municipal observation and critique. Yet Andersson knows how to keep things succinct and fresh whilst Anderson’s film feels lumbering and laboured. Anderson is also displaying his influences heavily here with political texts smashed hard onto the screen in the style of Godard and the dropping in of black frames whilst some factory and machinery shots seem lifted straight from Antonioni’s ‘Red Desert’ (1964). But it doesn’t quite hold together and Anderson might share Godard’s desire for satirical political mischief but he lacks Godard’s genuine sense of fun and play.
This is extraordinarily frustrating as some of these sequences are handled and shot brilliantly with some real moments and flourishes of genius, yet this lack of cohesion and its length makes the movie a slog and, ultimately, almost meaningless.
So I’m still struggling to figure out what ‘O Lucky Man’ was about? If it’s a critique of British capitalism and decline of Empire then it fails as it raises issues but addresses none of them. Is it about Malcolm McDowell’s rise to fame? If so that story has been done better elsewhere such as in Peter Watkins ‘Privilege’ (1967). Is it about a young man who can’t fit into a society that seems both against him and also tolerant of his excesses? Again, why not just re-watch ‘A Clockwork Orange’?
I’m going to spoil the ending here. At the end Mick decides to audition as an actor for a feature film. It’s his one last chance to make anything of himself. The director, played by Lindsay Anderson himself (there’s more ego sloshing about here than in Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2’ — 2017), wants Mick to smile, but Mick needs to know “why”? The director simply slaps him across the face. There’s the problem, for me, right there with this movie: it doesn’t feel like it is Mick that Anderson is slapping across the face but more that it is us, the audience. The stars and crew might engage in a self-congratulatory, meta-part at the end but we’re left feeling like we’ve been viewed with contempt.
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