For a while there it appeared Josh Lucas was on track to become the next Matthew McConaughey. Good lookin’ dude? Check. Charming? Check. Good actor? Certainly. After finding success as support for the Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind and leading rom-com human in Sweet Home Alabama, it looked as though Lucas was going to settle on the ol’ one for them and one for me train that did veteran actors like Gene Hackman well during the duration of his career. Before we knew it, it was over faster than that NBC-adaptation of The Firm he starred in.
Cut to last year. Lucas’ returned to a leading role in a movie that would never be lined up against any blockbusters slated for the summer. Screw the money. John Magary’s The Mend is a showcase for Lucas, who proves that he’s always been a leading man; it’s just that Hollywood gave up on him. In a recent interview with The A.V. Club, Lucas blamed a movie about a sinking boat and a sunken production: Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon. “That movie, combined with the lack of performance of Stealth, was a real one-two punch to my career,” he admits. “It really shut my career down, from a Hollywood standpoint. It kicked my ass and took me out of the game for a while…” Smaller roles followed, including a supporting role in one of those McConaissance movies, The Lincoln Lawyer.
The thing about Lucas is that for most of his Hollywood career, he played the pretty boy. Whether he’s a hero (Glory Road), a villain (Hulk), or a preppie (American Psycho), he’s always clean-cut and smart. With The Mend, all of that’s changed. We’re introduced to his character of Mat as a loser — a drunken, disheveled man who burns bridges with lovers, friends, and local restaurants around town. He’s even a burden to his brother Alan (Stephen Plunkett) and his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Summer), whose party he crashes late one evening. All of this unfolds before the title card stamps itself across the screen.
It’s an aggressive introduction to the familiar “men behaving badly” storyline, an admittedly tired thread that filmmakers of all shapes and budgets keep churning out. The Mend threatens to enter Bad Teacher or St. Vincent territory, but manages to stay grounded. For Lucas, it’s a reinvention not of sorts, but completely. Come for the tale of brotherhood and inadequacy, but make sure to stay for Lucas’ rebirth. Any story hiccups are supplanted by him and his supporting cast.
The main thrust of the film gets underway after the aforementioned late-night party, Alan and Farrah awake to discover they’re late for their vacation flight out of town. In a panic, they rush out of the house without thinking anyone else stayed the night. Lo and behold, a hungover Mat stumbles out and an adult Home Alone scenario is born. Replace the cologne with moisturizer and the wide-eyed innocence of youth with the dead-eyed guilt of failure and they’re practically the same film.
Soon Mat invites his girlfriend (Lucy Owen) and her son to stay over. Owen is rather good as an exhausted grown-up who puts up with Mat’s bad boy lifestyle. Her discussion with her son about lying leads to a subconscious description of her boyfriend: “You lie more as you get older … and then, at some point, you’ll start lying less because you’ll realize there’s not much point.” It’s why Mat gets excited when he hears music coming from an ice cream truck driving by. It’s why he’s always honest even when he’s being completely off-putting.
These characteristics could be played up to a level of parody, but Lucas makes it all land. His performance is all laid-back machismo with bursts of joy, always filtered through the puffs of an e-cigarette and whatever liquor he’s taking in. Lucas looks like he’s living in the role without ever giving off the effect of “I’m acting here! Look at me!” He is Mat.
Plunkett’s Alan is a pushover who tries too hard. He is the beta to Mat’s alpha — a man whose description of events in his life are constantly put down by his girlfriend and brother. Even when he tries to step up, he can’t help but fail. While Alan can find similarities with his brother when it comes to failure, at least Alan tries. Plunkett contrasts nicely with Lucas, especially when The Mend focuses on the two brothers in full meltdown mode. It’s in those moments that Magary’s work transcends the “who gives a damn” air that lingers throughout most of the proceedings.
There are a few bumps in the road when it comes to pacing (particularly in the third act), but The Mend is ultimately a success. It won’t do for Lucas what Mud and Dallas Buyers Club did for McConaughey. Lucas never approached the fame that McConaughey experienced in the mid-to-late ‘90s. One can only hope the movie catches the eye of another young filmmaker or experienced vet willing to give Lucas another shot at fame and success. A Lucascension, perhaps?