The Lucky Ones

It was about 70 minutes into The Lucky Ones that I finally wrestled to the ground, in my mind, where the movie was going and what is was trying to say or accomplish. "In its own weird way, this wants to be the Sideways of Iraq coming-home tales," I thought. There's some of the same bittersweet clash of tonalities, and each movie, in large part, is about trading in self-defeatism and rueful doting for que sera deliverance, about locating the virtue of small victories and finding release in the fact that life is a journey and not a destination. (Heck, composer Rolfe Kent even provides the score for both films.)

All of this makes The Lucky Ones — mostly a humanistic dramedy, with a few pointed moments of flare-up — explosive for some very strange reasons. It's a fascinating and in some ways slightly unnerving realization that we've seemingly reached a point in our collective national pop-cultural coping that allows for a movie like this, after having (broadly speaking) turned a blind eye on so many Iraq War dramas and documentaries, a handful quite superb.

Directed by Neil Burger, who made the interesting 2002 mockumentary Interview With the Assassin before transitioning into more streamlined narrative filmmaking with The Illusionist, the movie centers around three very different Iraq war veterans returning home from Landstuhl Air Force base in Germany, and the cracked road trip they share across the United States when their connecting flights out of New York City are canceled.

Fred Cheever (Tim Robbins), a married reservist with a teenage son almost ready for college, returns home to a wife who's bluntly, emotionally moved on. This extends Cheever's road trip with the cocky TK (Michael Peňa) and young, naïve Colee (Rachel McAdams). The latter is headed to Las Vegas, to deliver a guitar to the family of a slain pal. TK, meanwhile, is planning on a brief, headlong plunge into hedonism to make sure his sexual running gear, wounded by shrapnel, is in working order for his fiancée.

There's a warm, easy rapport between the three actors, and while there are moments of flinty anger and edginess — Colee's reaction to a put-down of her friend, plus a pointed political discussion at a house party in Kansas — these are momentary encroachments in an otherwise fairly lightweight, lighthearted film... maybe too lighthearted, actually. The movie is co-written by Burger and Dirk Wittenborn, who previously adapted his own novel Fierce People for the screen, and The Lucky Ones shares the aforementioned work's sense of glancingly lacerating sociological observation, as when a Hummer salesman, after a mishap with the group's first rental car, remarks that the Army vehicles they're used to driving probably don't have built-in cameras in the headrests like their commercial counterparts.

That keen sense of detail helps mitigate the lingering sense that this is all a bit too pat of a set-up, as do the movie's fairly strong performances, particularly from McAdams. There's certainly no disrespect intended by the filmmakers, but the tonal shifts here give off the sound and feel of a grinding gearshift; California wine country helps such bittersweet grappling go down much smoother than do battle-scarred veterans, it turns out. (Lionsgate/QED, R, 108 minutes)


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