Lucky Ones, The (United States, 2008)
If one was to apply loose definitions, The Lucky Ones could be considered a "war movie." In reality, however, this is less about how the characters react under fire than how they react when removed from it. The Lucky Ones is a road movie and, in the tradition of the genre, it follows a small group of protagonists on a journey from Point A to Point B. Along the way, they encounter difficulties, meet "colorful" individuals, and find out a few things about themselves. There are times when the framework appears creaky and unwieldy, especially considering the story that director Neil Burger wants to tell, and events near the end of the movie take contrivance to the point of absurdity. However, the characters are likeable and well-developed, and this goes a long way toward mitigating problems that exist in tone and plotting.
Cheever (Tim Robbins), Colee (Rachel McAdams), and TK (Michael Peña) are on their way home from serving in Iraq. All have suffered injuries. Cheever's back required surgery, Colee was shot in the leg, and TK was hit in the groin by shrapnel. For Cheever, this marks the end of his stint in the army. He's looking forward to returning to a quiet life as a civilian. For Colee and TK, it's a one-month respite before they return to active duty. They meet on a plane to New York, and end up carpooling when their outbound flights from JFK are indefinitely delayed. Their ultimate goal: Las Vegas. Colee is headed there to return her dead boyfriend's guitar to his family. TK is hoping to visit a "high priced specialist" who may be able to cure the impotence resulting from his wound. And Cheever needs $20,000 so his son can attend Stanford - casino tables beckon.
As with all road trip movies, this one is constructed as a series of vignettes, some of which are more compelling than others. These include a car accident, a visit to a church, a barroom brawl, an encounter with a tornado (complete with unconvincing special effects), and a kinky encounter for Cheever that he's not broad-minded enough to accept. As is common with films of this genre, what happens at the destination is less interesting than the little detours and side-trips that occur along the way. The weakest aspect of The Lucky Ones is by far the conclusion, which is flat and contrived.
Although Burger isn't working with the strongest storyline, his handling of the characters is effective. Cheever, Colee, and TK are nicely developed as individuals and the camaraderie between them is pleasant and unforced. The three principal actors - Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Peña work to make their alter-egos into men and women with complex personalities - flawed people who are basically well-meaning. Their circumstances may often feel clichéd and forced, but the characters rarely do. It isn't unpleasant to spend two hours with these three soldiers, although it might have been more enjoyable to spend the time getting to know them rather than force-feeding them artificial road bumps.
The Lucky Ones is a largely apolitical movie. It is similar in some ways to Stop-Loss, in that both films are road trips featuring soldiers back in the United States after serving in Iraq. The impacts of the war on the psyches of the characters are examined but, except in one brief throw-away scene at a birthday party, its merits are not discussed. For Cheever, Colee, and TK, it's about doing their duty and staying alive. Bigger issues are not their concerns. Whether the war is "right" or "wrong" doesn't enter into their thinking. For them, it's simple: the war exists and their #1 goal is to avoid coming home in a body bag. By excising questions about the morality of the situation from the narrative, The Lucky Ones is able to focus on the characters; it accepts the war as a fact and endeavors to show how it impacts the lives of those whose lives are touched by it. The problems Burger encounters have nothing to do with the way he handles the war; they relate to the unevenness with which he represents the protagonists' journey.
Lucky Ones, The (United States, 2008)
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, Michael Peña
Screenplay: Neil Burger & Dirk Wittenborn
Cinematography: Declan Quinn
Music: Rolfe Kent
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate