The Lucky Ones (2008) ***1/2
Here's a fact: movies about the current war in Iraq have done about as well as... well, the current war in Iraq. To be fair, none of them have really been great. Even Tommy Lee Jones' In the Valley of Elah did not manage well financially, though it did manage to get half decent reception from critics. Understandably most of the films have been pretty heavy handed, and just as understandably, audiences have been satiating those taste buds with other, less controversial and subjects. But then comes along The Lucky Ones, starring Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, and Rachael McAdams. The film is about 3 soldiers returning home from Iraq; two on leave for 30 days, the other out for good. Instead of sticking to the usual downbeat tones of other Iraq films, it's more of a hopeful charmer and quite a funny one too. It's really more of a good old fashioned American road movie with soldiers than a war movie. But that didn't stop people from not going. The film got only limited release through 2008, despite gaining fans on the festival circuit.
Three soldiers return home from Iraq after meeting each other on the plane ride. When they arrive on American soil to catch their connecting flights, they discover that the airport is backed up solid due to a black out. Rather than wait around, Cheaver (Robbins) decides he's close enough to his home in St. Louis to rent a car and drive. TK and Colee (Pena and McAdams) decide they should join him. They're both heading to Las Vegas and figure they can probably make the drive and catch a flight out of St. Louis by the time they would here.
Colee is heading to Vegas to return her boyfriend's vintage guitar to his family. He died in the war. TK is heading to Vegas for some professional help before he meets up with his fiancé. Hookers and strippers? Colee inquires. Kind of - but not for the usual reasons. You see, they all have wounds, but some more sensitive than others. Cheaver injured his back in a not so heroic way, but he's more amused and relieved about it than embarrassed. Colee's been shot in the leg, and sports an unhealed wound and a limp. TK gets the best of both their worlds: he's been wounded by shrapnel in a not so public area. Now, as he says, it doesn't work right. He's going to Vegas to meet with some "professionals" to test his own little soldier out. "I can't go back to my fiancé without knowing it works, we'd have nothing to talk about!" A strange predicament for two people about to be married.
Cheaver, being the oldest in his 40s, is usually something of a father figure to the younger TK and Colee. On their trip those two first bicker before becoming closer. Colee openly talks about her late ex, and tells the tales he told her of robbing a Casino in Vegas to pay off his loan shark debts. TK responds with coldness and ridicules the dead man for his character. It results, inevitably in having to pull over and the keys inevitably being locked in the car.
The Lucky One's certainly doesn't go anywhere we really don't expect it to, but the paths it takes to get there aren't necessarily always the one's we expect. For example, given how quickly the trio arrive in St. Louis, it's obvious something will have to happen to keep it going. It's no big surprise to reveal that his wife wants a divorce, though she apparently is not cheating on him. Meanwhile their son breaks the big news that he got into Stanford, but needs 20 grand to secure his spot. So Cheaver decides he'll go to visit his brother or maybe even go to Vegas and win the money. That guitar Colee carries around is actually even worth 20 grand, though he doesn't want it, and she has to give it to her dead boyfriends family. She wants to give it to him but obviously knows she can't, although what she knows about her dead boyfriend seems to be less and less as time goes on.
The movie is populated with the usual oddball characters and chance encounters you find on cross country road trips, or in cross country road trip movies. There's a stop over at a church where they meet a very wealthy parishioner who invites them to a party, where among other things they encounter a young man against the war, another man who thinks after meeting the trio there's a good reason why they're losing the war, and a horny wife with the hots for the old Cheaver. Elsewhere they encounter the usual road side bars and motels, traveling sex workers and a rogue Tornado. And of course, along the way each confronts their own issues and demons.
The Lucky Ones is a funny and winning little movie. It's above all else a very human movie. The characters are what makes it succeed, not it's story. All three leads give wonderful and sincere performances, particularly McAdams as Colee. She's naive but not unintelligent, and tough but still vulnerable.
What could have been a downer filled with cheap shots and cheap tactics is instead smart and even handed, and above all respectful. That's not to say that it's necessarily a "safe" movie - but then again a movie that's best described as a road comedy about Iraq Veterans probably cannot be. It's above all else a very human movie. The characters are what makes it succeed, not it's story. All three leads give wonderful and sincere performances, particularly McAdams as Colee. She's naive but not unintelligent, and tough but still vulnerable. The movie ends as the soldiers' leave expires and they must return. At least for now they've been the lucky ones. Here's to hoping they stayed lucky.