Cinemagoers over the last year have been loathe to spend their Friday and Saturday nights thinking about the Iraq war. One after one, the newest strain of war movies have tanked at the box office, a fate that seems in store for even the best of them, like last year’s mostly excellent In The Valley of Elah. I don’t know that The Lucky Ones will fare any better, but who knows? Everyone loves a road-trip movie.
It could be that the key ingredient — the one missing all along — is a dash of Little Miss Sunshine.
That is, at times, what The Lucky Ones feels like. An episodic jaunt through middle America, the film follows three wounded soldiers on leave from Iraq as they see to personal business. Cheever (Tim Robbins), whose back injury has effectively ended his military career, is heading home to Minneapolis to pick up where he left off with his wife and teenage son; Colee (Rachel McAdams) is heading to Las Vegas with plans to meet the family of the soldier who gave up his life saving hers; and TK (Michael Peña), who took some shrapnel in his private parts, is also en route to Sin City to rehab with a high-dollar prostitute. Their fates convene when a blackout cancels all flights out of New York City. Determined not to spend two days in an airport terminal, the three decide to rent a car for an overnight drive to Minneapolis, where Colee and TK will catch new flights. Their plan, as you may have anticipated, doesn’t unfold in exactly this way. The set-up happens quickly, and within minutes we’re on the road with our mismatched trio, discussing life, love and military service in a late-model minivan.
The Lucky Ones amounts to a series of stops on this long journey, and it’s replete with déjà vu: Here’s the scene where the keys get locked in the car; now comes the part where we get in a bar fight; here’s the part where we meet one character’s family, who gives a chillier-than-expected reception; the list goes on. Because these are interesting characters in an interesting situation, it’s disappointing to see the film stoop to pick up so many road-movie tropes.
But what’s striking about The Lucky Ones isn’t the plot, it’s how well its stars work together. McAdams, Robbins and Peña have a real chemistry, and kudos to writer-director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) for drawing out the best qualities of each. McAdams in particular does the best work of her young career as Colee, still somehow innocent despite having lost her best friend in a war zone. It’s a believable, heartfelt performance that breathes a lot of life into this film. What doesn’t work so well is the staging of several major plot points. Burger and co-writer Dirk Wittenborn crowd The Lucky Ones with unnecessary problems, which they’re subsequently stuck having to solve in far-fetched ways (case in point: Cheever’s son has been accepted into Stanford, but he’s $20,000 short).
These little detours distract from the larger, more interesting question of how these soldiers fit in back home now that they’ve been on multiple deployments.
The film keeps skirting around this issue, but never really looks it the eye. It’s frustrating, because I think the framework of The Lucky Ones — three soldiers on a road trip through modern-day America — could have been used to much greater effect. Instead, this occasionally touching journey gets bogged down in contrived melodrama, all while taking you nowhere you haven’t been before.
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