Setsuko, the heroine of “Oh Lucy!,” is a middle-aged, chain-smoking and very unhappy Tokyo office worker. Early in the film, she witnesses two depressing events that may portend her own future: one is a suicide, and the other is the the retirement of a pathetic older worker treated with fake affection by the colleagues who secretly ridicule her.
Yet the film is often very funny, such as when Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) attends goofy language lessons in “American English,” which require her to don a blond wig and which to her consternation include plenty of hugging and high-fives. It’s a testament to the skill of first-time feature director Atsuko Hirayanagi that these wild mood swings can co-exist without blowing the movie apart.
But Setsuko may have a way out of her misery in the person of John (Josh Hartnett), a congenial teacher of questionable qualifications who works in a remarkably sleazy language school. Besides the wigs, he likes to give his students American names (Setsuko becomes Lucy) to loosen them up. The language school scenes are comic in a very broad manner, though much of the film’s humor has darker, more absurdist tones.
John abruptly vanishes, fleeing with Setsuko’s niece to L.A. Setsuko, who’s never been abroad, decides it’s time to visit sunny California. She acquires an unwanted traveling companion in the form of the sibling (Kaho Minami) whom she hates and who is the niece’s imperious mother. You are correct if you see a lot of culture-clash comedy on the horizon.
There also will be events that underline Setsuko’s isolation and bitterness, including her growing sense of attachment for John, and her uncertainty as to how he’ll respond. The sisters track him down, only to learn that Setsuko’s niece has ditched him. Setsuko, her sister and John set out to find her. Adventures follow, and a return to Tokyo.
Not every incident, whether sad or humorous, works, but enough do to make the movie worth seeing. Clearly Hirayanagi feels great affection for Setsuko, who can be decidedly unpleasant. Terajima’s outstanding performance in the lead helps us share that affection.
This film grew out of the director’s 2014 short (also titled “Oh Lucy!”) about Setsuko. It’s tricky to expand a 21-minute piece into a feature, and there are a few moments when this film demonstrates why. In addition, some of the film’s pokes at L.A. seem a little too easy.
Viewers able to overlook some of these issues and ride with the extreme tonal shifts will be rewarded with an idiosyncratic character study suggesting that the road to self-knowledge is beset with obstacles and uncertainties.
Walter Addiego is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comedy-drama. With Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi. In English and Japanese with English subtitles. Not rated. 96 minutes.