If not for the warmth and likability of its characters and those playing them, "The Lucky Ones" would be a tiresome formula picture, a by-the-numbers road movie that hits all the usual stops, whether it needs to or not. But the three leads are so enjoyable that we don't mind being stuck in a car with them on their cross-country drive.
The film, from director/co-writer Neil Burger ("The Illusionist"), opens with three Iraq vets returning home following injury. Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins) is a career soldier finally done with his tour, happy to come home for good. Naïve motormouth Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams), off for 30 days R&R, hopes to travel to Las Vegas to return a dead lover's guitar to his family. T.K. Poole (Michael Peña), also on a brief leave, is a young man of great confidence - except he fears his fiancée won't take him back, as shrapnel has left him impotent, possibly permanently.
Burger's screenplay, co-written with Dick Wittenborn, forces these three through the dumbest of situations as they road trip from New York to St. Louis and, ultimately, to Las Vegas. We're offered the usual road trip clichés: life-changing conversations, quirky locals, schedule-breaking accidents. There's even a scene where the trio hurriedly escape from a bar fight, laughing all the way.
And, taking a cue from "The Best Years of Our Lives," all three discover how home life is not as welcoming as they dreamed. Cheaver learns his wife wants a divorce, his old job can't take him back, and his son desperately needs twenty grand for college. Colee uncovers the wrong truths about her boyfriend. T.K.'s confrontation with his fiancée is left offscreen, but he makes revelations about them beforehand, most notably that without sex, he and she have "nothing to talk about."
Most problematic here are the wild shifts in tone, as Burger decides and re-decides if he wants to make an earnest drama or a wild comedy. A heartfelt scene in which Colee asks a church congregation to pray for her friends is followed by some farcical nonsense where Cheaver encounters an amorous couple eager for a third party. Colee's innocence grates as she attempts to broker a deal between T.K. and some hookers (willing, oddly, to grant him a freebie), a scene which leads, inexplicably, to a tornado sequence straight out of "Twister."
But darn it all if the cast doesn't make it work anyway. There's a certain charm the three stars bring to their characters, and we very quickly come to like them enough to enjoy the ride. Robbins, McAdams, and Peña have a terrific rapport here, each building complexities to what are, on the page, uncomplicated roles. They're bound by common experience, and through that they gain a unique friendship, winning us over along the way.
Burger has stated that his film is not about Iraq, nor should it be counted as among the glut of war-themed movies from Hollywood. And yet it is squarely about the Iraq War, if not over there, then over here. In fact, it's here where "The Lucky Ones" works best. A running gag involves the over-anxious response from civilians toward the vets; in a winking commentary on the ribbon magnets style of patriotism, every "thank you" the vets deliver is answered with an overemphasized, determinedly sincere "no, thank you."
Shell shock (must we really call it "PSTD"?) is felt by all three, especially T.K., who wakes up at night with short, startled screams, who flinches at hail that sounds eerily like gunfire. That's nothing new in the movies; more intriguing is how the soldiers know how to milk their conditions: announcing they're soldiers gets them favors, and they know it. When it doesn't work for them, they're a little put off.
Most interesting, if not entirely successful, is a scene where the vets find themselves witnesses to a political argument by a family of spoiled socialites. The father (John Heard) declares he's allowed to change his mind on supporting the war - he doesn't, but used to, vigilantly - while mocking Cheaver for saying he only a soldier's first mission is simply staying alive. ("No wonder we're losing," the never-served father scoffs.) A college-aged son counters with all the lefty talking points, delivered by rote. The commentary is a bit obvious, but it's effective nonetheless: here are people worked up to a fury over a war they've never seen, while those who were there get dismissed. It's easier to engage in talk radio arguments and wild blog postings when we can keep the soldiers as a mere abstract.
"The Lucky Ones" works nicely in moments like this, suggesting not that we must take one stand or another, but simply that we should remember the human faces behind our tirades. At its core, the film is a simple, formulaic road trip flick that could be about anyone going anywhere; it's when Burger puts in the small details, and the cast makes those details shine, that things become quite engaging.
Video & Audio
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer seems a little over-saturated, although since flesh tones are fine, I'd guess this is an intended look. Colors are crisp and detail is sharp, with no grain visible.
A Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does a solid job balancing dialogue with deep, rich music and effects; a decent stereo mix is also included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
The fifteen-minute featurette "A Look Inside: The Lucky Ones" is a lightweight, mostly promotional, yet rather informational making-of piece. Burger's claims that he was aiming for a "Sideways"-style comedy explains the film's poorer choices. There's also some nifty stuff about how to film three actors in a working minivan for most of your movie.
A batch of previews for other Lionsgate titles is also included; those previews also play as the disc loads.
"The Lucky Ones" a bit too clumsy and uneven to demand repeat viewings, but those looking for a breezy, well-acted dramedy will do plenty fine to Rent It.