‘Lucky Ones’: A surprising road trip

September 27, 2008


“The Lucky Ones” is as enjoyable for the things that don’t happen as for the ones that do.

Actually, I can’t say much more about that without giving too much away about what does happen. But put it this way: You’ve seen this movie before, but you’ve never seen it done this way.

Let’s get that dreaded four-letter word out of the way right off the bat: Iraq. It’s like a cinematic curse, dooming any movie that’s tagged with that epithet, whether fiction (“In the Valley of Elah,” “Redacted,” “Stop-Loss”) or nonfiction (“Standard Operating Procedure,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Body of War”).

Why? That’s so easy – it barely bears explication, despite numerous thumb-sucking treatises on the subject. Three words: low-information voters. That’s one of those delightful rubrics political pollsters use, as though it softens its actual definition. In fact, it refers to the frightening number of American citizens (and movie-goers) who studiously avoid learning too much about what’s going on in the world around them. They get their news from TV (which avoids Iraq coverage because it’s such a constant downer) and, really, just don’t want to have to think about anything too depressing – especially when they go to the movies.

But “The Lucky Ones” is not an Iraq movie, except in its set-up. Rather, it’s your basic soldiers-on-leave story (hey – they could sell it as “On the Town” without music, if the under-40 audience had a clue what “On the Town” was), but it happens to be set in contemporary America. Which means the soldiers are on leave from one of those endless tours of duty in Iraq.

The trio of soldiers consists of T.K. Poole (Michael Pena), Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) and Fred Cheever (Tim Robbins). Each has suffered a combat wound; T.K. and Colee are both on 30-day leave, while Fred has earned a medical discharge because of a back injury that saved him from a subsequent firefight that decimated his unit.

They meet on the plane home from Germany, then bond in New York when their trip is interrupted by a power outage that closes the airport; there’ll be no airplanes for at least 24 hours, perhaps longer.

Colee and T.K. are headed for Las Vegas; Fred is going home to St. Louis. When he decides to rent a car and make the drive, T.K. and Colee tag along, planning to fly out of St. Louis. Nothing, of course, is ever that simple.

Cowritten by director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) and Dirk Wittenborn, this road-trip tale gives the soldiers time to get to know each other and tell us their stories. In short form, it seems formulaic: Colee is returning the valuable guitar that belonged to her dead-soldier boyfriend to his family in Vegas. T.K., who’s been wounded in the genitals, is going to Vegas to find a sympathetic sex-worker willing to coax his battered member to stand at attention before he reunites with his fiancée. Fred is going home to his wife and son and the job he left behind two years earlier.

Burger confronts the clichés of this sort of coming-home tale, then swerves neatly around them. The face-off between combat-trained soldiers and ignorant, aggressive bar patrons? Check. The returning serviceman facing a spouse who wants to cut him loose? Check. The mourning survivor forced to deal with the lies told by her dead soldier lover? Check. The sexually anxious soldier tended to by a compassionate hooker? Check. The fateful convergence in Las Vegas – where violent eruptions, massive losses and life-changing wins lurk around every corner? Check.

Yet Burger fakes the audience out at every turn. He suggests the heightened instincts that come from facing death daily – but it never results in an accidental stateside bloodbath. It’s not giving too much away to say that none of these characters meets a tragic, ironic end; this isn’t that movie.

Will there be quibbles about the movie’s politics? Of course. This is a film in which these soldiers are thanked repeatedly by civilians for the job they’re doing – and the one guy who questions the actual mission is portrayed as a sourpuss crank. Consider that part of its camouflage, the price for making a movie that’s dramatically solid, surprisingly funny and emotionally nuanced. When you think about it afterward, it does plant subversive thoughts about the human toll and the amorphousness of the reasoning behind the war.

There’s also a certain simplicity – to the point of sketchiness – about the plotting. T.K.’s mission seems contrived and the homecoming Fred encounters seems thinly drawn. Even Colee, who seems to be on a legitimate personal journey, feels clichéd at times.

Thankfully, the character is played by Rachel McAdams, deglammed since “Red Eye” and “The Family Stone.” Even dressed way down, there’s no turning McAdams into a sparrow; her heart is too big and her delivery is too fresh. Similarly, Pena, who could easily have brooded or tough-talked his way through this film, reveals the humanity within a success-obsessed soldier whose future plans include a run for office. Robbins captures the sense of his character as a laidback dad forced to confront the crumbling of his self-image and sense of what his world should be.

“The Lucky Ones” is a road movie that detours around clichés. Burger, who directed the insinuating “The Illusionist” a couple of years ago, manages the neat trick of seeming to promise one thing and giving us something quite different than we expect. And that’s a good thing.


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