Although I mostly enjoyed Neil Burger’s The Lucky Ones, I freely confess two things: I don’t think it’s actually a very good movie, and I’m left with no clue as to exactly what the point of the film is. In essence, Burger and cowriter Dirk Wittenborn (Fierce People) have crafted a story about three Iraq-war vets coming home—one permanently, two on 30-day leave—and dropped the characters into a situation that turns their return into a road movie.
It’s a reasonable enough premise, and there’s no reason it can’t work. In fact, once the film hits its stride—some time past a wholly pointless bar brawl where they don’t receive the respect due them as soldiers—it works pretty well. But ultimately I was left without any clear notion as to what was being said through the film and why. This vagueness of intent becomes even more pronounced thanks to insistences by the makers that The Lucky Ones isn’t an Iraq-war film. While I understand wanting to distance yourself from a subgenre that has proved itself to be box-office poison, I fail to grasp how this film has any identity of its own if it isn’t an Iraq-war film. And frankly, I think it is one—even while wishing it wasn’t.
The setup has our three returning soldiers—Cheever (Tim Robbins), Colee (Rachel McAdams, Red Eye) and TK (Michael Peña)—hitting JFK airport just in time to find out that there are no departing flights due to a power outage. So, all three end up in Cheever’s rental car headed for St. Louis, where both Colee and TK—who are on their way to Vegas—assume they can catch a flight. As the trip progresses, confidences are exchanged and dreams (along with some delusions) revealed. Bonding ensues, as do complications—the first big one coming when Cheever’s wife (Molly Hagan, Henry Poole Is Here) announces she wants a divorce.
And while all the complications are fairly predictable and clearly contrived, they’re not wholly unacceptable—for the most part. (I leave it to the individual whether or not to burst out laughing at the transparency of what’s going to happen in the twister sequence where Colee and TK seek shelter in a culvert.) Many of the complications suggest something far deeper than the film ever quite delivers. Take the scene where a right-wing armchair warrior gets fed up with Cheever when Cheever doesn’t answer the question, “Why do you fight?” with the answer he wants to hear. The man dismisses Cheever with a terse, “No wonder we’re losing the war.” And there are no less than three scenes—possibly four—that touch on the question of people enlisting in the armed forces for reasons having nothing to do with patriotism or a belief in the current war. But where does all this go? Well, truth to tell, it doesn’t go much of anywhere.
What you end up with is a pretty enjoyable character study—however clichéd and contrived—that’s held together by the performances of the lead actors, especially that of Rachel McAdams. It may take 30 minutes of the film for her to get there—or for the film to let her—but here McAdams has finally been given a role that’s worthy of her talent. For her performance alone, the film is almost worth seeing.
I should note that stylistically, The Lucky Ones has less than no relation to Burger’s The Illusionist (2006), so don’t go to this movie expecting the stylish glossiness of his last one. If anything, The Lucky One is a rather drab movie—drab to the point of something like indifference. The approach perhaps suits the material, which is at least intended to be of the slice-of-life school—something undercut by the clockwork precision of the story’s contrivances. If you’ve any interest in the film, I’d suggest beating a path to Hollywood-Regal Cinema 14. When I arrived for the first Sunday matinee, there was one other person in the theater. By the time I left, our ranks had increased to four. This isn’t going to be around long. Rated R for language and some sexual content.