As a follow-up to their scandalous hit If…., director Lindsay Anderson, writer David Sherwin, and actor Malcolm McDowell presented O Lucky Man! as the further adventures of McDowell's Mick Travis, the ne'er-do-well student on the front lines of Anderson's allegorical class wars. But it's only a small measure of the follow-up's shambling, surreal brilliance that the Mick Travis of O Lucky Man! has more in common with McDowell's post-treatment Alex in A Clockwork Orange than the mustachioed rebel of the earlier film. (When asked about the character discrepancies, Sherwin joked that he couldn't think of another name for McDowell besides Mick.) But then, nothing is as it seems in Anderson's epic three-hour comedy, which hurls its eager-to-please Everyman hero through every imaginable strata of British society without pausing to make sense of it all.
Based on an idea McDowell had about a traveling coffee salesman, O Lucky Man! begins as an irreverent capitalist satire before springboarding into issues including class struggle, sexual mores, world politics, and meta-commentary on the medium itself. The brightest of a sorry lot of salesman for Imperial Coffee, the ambitious McDowell gets sent off to northeast England to cover the territory left vacant by a missing company man. Though he sets off to win a king's ransom in commissions, he's soon permanently sidetracked by a series of bizarre detours, from being subjected to military interrogations and medical experiments to falling in love with a flighty rich girl (played by a young, luscious Helen Mirren) to assisting a corrupt tycoon who makes him the fall guy for a five-year prison sentence.
Though its particular brand of deadpan comedy is unmistakably British, O Lucky Man! has a plainspoken surrealism that owes much to Luis Buñuel; both knew that a sense of detachment was the best way to keep the outrageous goings-on in balance. Perhaps Anderson's most inspired touch was to commission Alan Price, late of The Animals, to perform original songs that tie the vignettes together and act as a sort of Greek chorus that comments on the action. Price's songs also help make sense of McDowell's passive hero, who gets jerked around so much by the hands of fate that three hours later, it's hard to tell whether he's learned anything.
Key features: Filling a 184-minute commentary track sounds like a tall order, but the gregarious McDowell, joined by Sherwin and Price, gets it done. Also included: a vintage featurette and a new feature-length doc on McDowell called O Lucky Malcolm.