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Miwa Nishikawa has made films about various sorts of scapegraces and con artists, but her latest, “The Long Excuse,” may be her first about a certifiable jerk.

There’s no other way to describe Sachio Kinugasa (Masahiro Motoki), a middle-aged celebrity novelist who pontificates on television and lords it over his subordinates, while cheating on his loyal beautician wife Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu) with a pretty young editor (Haru Kuroki).

He is romping with his lover only minutes after Natsuko leaves on a ski trip with an old school friend (Keiko Horiuchi). Then when he gets word that both women have died in a bus accident, he plays the grieving husband at the funeral without shedding a tear (though media cameras capture a few fake sobs).

The Long Excuse (Nagai Iiwake)
Rating
Run Time 123 mins
Language Japanese
Opens OCT. 14

The film, however, is more about Sachio’s redemption than any well-deserved punishment for his many sins, and is based on Nishikawa’s eponymous novel, which was nominated for the prestigious Naoki Prize. In the course of the story, Sachio tries to transform into a semblance of a human being, somewhat similar to the rocky personal journey of Bill Murray’s obnoxious weatherman in the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day.”

This movie may be aiming more directly for mainstream success than Nishikawa’s previous work. One sign is her casting of two cute kids as the main agents of Sachio’s salvation. But the director has lost none of her unblinking insight into the murkier depths of her morally compromised characters, with Sachio being the latest, most contemptible example. As an exercise in feel-good movie-making, “The Long Excuse” is unusual in its unvarnished truth-telling, including the fact that a decent gesture or two does not a personality change make.

But at least give Sachio credit for trying. After the funeral, he meets Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), the truck driver husband of his wife’s deceased friend, and his children, Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) and Akari (Tamaki Shiratori). Learning that Shinpei has given up studying for his junior high entrance exams to care for preschooler Akari — Yoichi’s long hours on the road force him to be an absent father — Sachio offers to visit two days a week to help out.

Here the film enters a heart-warming sitcom phase. Sachio finds relief from his own guilt by playing a bumbling surrogate parent, with the kids calling him plain “Sachio.” But his budding friendship with the children and their salt-of-the-earth dad does not resolve his unfinished business with his deceased wife.

Masahiro Motoki, a pop-star-turned-actor best known abroad as the tyro funeral-director in the Oscar-winning “Departures” (2008), plays Sachio as a combination of writerly introversion and the kind of preening self-regard commonly associated with showbiz (and, as Motoki confesses in a program interview, reflects aspects of his true self). At a disastrous hanami (cherry-blossom-viewing party) with his much-put-upon assistant and others from the literary world, Sachio even drunkenly belts out a pop tune with the sort of swagger and sexuality that thrilled fans of Motoki’s 1980s boy band Shibugakitai. That is, Sachio has many facets — and Motoki nails them with a conviction that appears to come from personal experience.

But as badly as Sachio may behave — and in some scenes he is so insulting as to practically beg for a punch to the face — he never completely forgets how to regret and, yes, love, however mixed his feelings may be with resentment and anger.

Whether or not you believe he truly redeems himself — I was of two minds until the end — the film delivers a catharsis that is earned, not tacked onto an obligatory happy ending. It also teaches an object lesson about the mourning process: There’s no one right way to do it — and better late than never.

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