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With: Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, Michael Peña
Written by: Neil Burger, Dirk Wittenborn
Directed by: Neil Burger
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Running Time: 115
Date: 03/10/2008

The Lucky Ones (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Triple Vets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The business of making Iraq war-related movies hasn't exactly been booming; they've been selling like cold hotcakes and stacking up just as fast. Even a glittering Oscar failed to draw crowds to see the recent documentary Taxi to the Darkside. It's not hard to understand why; it's a depressing subject. It's already in the news, so why pay to see more? Why remind yourself of such a grim subject when you can see a different movie and forget about it for a little while? Regardless of all this, I hope people give Neil Burger's The Lucky Ones a chance. Of its genre, it's uncommonly good, and it's also the cheeriest movie about Iraq war vets I've yet seen.

It will be endlessly compared to last year's Grace Is Gone, which in itself was not a bad film, but did have the drawback of wallowing in its own misery. The filmmakers were perhaps counting on an Oscar nomination for John Cusack to drive in customers, but it never happened. (I doubt many Academy voters bothered to watch it.) The Lucky Ones doesn't seem to have any such aspirations; its tone is more road movie/buddy comedy than any kind of soapboax statement. It begins as three U.S. soldiers head home. The oldest, Cheever (Tim Robbins), has been discharged and intends to return to civilian life. T.K. (Michael Peña) and Colee (Rachel McAdams) merely have a short leave. They arrive at JFK airport and find that all flights have been cancelled. They immediately jump to alert: another terrorist attack? No, just a power outage due to excessive heat.

A kindly car rental agent gives them the last car (the one reserved for his boss) because of their service to their country. "Thank you," they offer. "No, thank you," the clerk retorts, the first of many such responses. Our trio hit the road. Cheever is at the first stop, St. Louis, while TK. And Colee are bound for Las Vegas, for very different reasons. The movie is at its best before we know too much about our heroes. Colee walks with a severe limp, but she has an unflappably sunny outlook, perhaps because a limp is better than a bodybag. T.K., as seen in the movie's prologue, has had his manhood damaged by a piece of flying shrapnel. The movie is light on details, but apparently, he may be able to get it working again with... ahem... "physical therapy." Meanwhile, Cheever has injured his back and occasionally pops pain pills.

The movie continuously plunks our three travelers into strange situations that seem alien to them. There's little evidence that a war is on. In one great scene, the trio enters a bar to find all the patrons enraptured by the TV set. Some kind of important, breaking news? Nope. It's a reality show. Colee tries to make friends with some girls her own age, but they only laugh and make fun of her leg. There's no hatred or spitting, as some Vietnam vets experienced. There's only indifference, or perhaps a kind of distant, well-intentioned, but clueless respect. In another great scene, the travelers find themselves invited to a Southern barbecue, hopelessly out of place. A young man asks them for details about the war, but is already convinced that politicians are merely using it to make tons of money. An older man (John Heard, on hand for just this one scene) joins the conversation and disagrees. The younger man asks the soldiers: "what do you think we're doing over there?" Cheever responds, "just trying to stay alive." The older man scoffs. "Is that all? No wonder we're losing." There's your three basic opinions on the war, summed up in one succinct exchange.

As The Lucky Ones gets a bit road-weary, however, it starts to lose this edge. I won't reveal all the innermost secrets about the characters, but as the movie does so, the characters become less dimensional. They seem more planned out and written than they do human beings; their problems are too neat, and too easily defined. It all points toward a tidy conclusion, which I suppose is necessary for an entertainment -- and an example of the "road movie" genre -- like this one, but that doesn't prevent it from being slightly disappointing. The other odd factor is the music score by Rolfe Kent, which seems too consistently comic and cheerful, even if the mood calls for something else.

The movie's strongest aspect is the chameleon-like performances. It's weird to think of a famous lefty like Robbins as a soldier, but he carries a soldier's swagger with no problem; he disappears into it. Even more amazing is that director Burger -- who helmed The Illusionist two years ago -- has somehow managed to subtract several years from both Peña and McAdams (who are both about 32). Peña seems like a young twentysomething, the age at which he knows the answers to all life's problems. (Cheever listens amused, then annoyed, as T.K. constantly gives him pointers.) McAdams is the real deal-clincher, though. Three years ago, she played a together, confident hotel manager in Red Eye, and now she seems a decade younger, perhaps twenty. Her Colee is overly na�ve and positive, but not in a way that makes you want to punch her; McAdams plays it as a very subtle kind of cover for something deeper. She draws you in.

The Lucky Ones succeeds, for at least its first two-thirds, because of the halfway quality of these characters. They're uncommonly experienced and injured, but still hopeful. They're home, but they don't belong anywhere. They're treated with superficial respect but also with confusion and unease. Ultimately, I suppose there's only one place the road could end for these three.

DVD Details: Lionsgate has released a kind of stripped down DVD of The Lucky Ones, with no Blu-Ray. It feels like they've just given up on this movie, which I now consider an underrated gem. The disc comes with a bunch of trailers -- it takes forever to get to the main menu -- and one 15-minute making-of featurette, as generic as they come.

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