Certainly I believe Neil Burger when he says that the script of The Lucky Ones–which he co-wrote–is not meant to be an homage to the classic film The Best Years of Our Lives. Of coarse, it’s nearly impossible though not to make comparisons. They both deal with three soldiers returning home from a hard war, only to find that the home they dreamed of coming back to in the field, is just as strange as the land they came from. In Best Years, they were returning from World War II, and they were three white men. In Lucky Ones, we have one white male, one Hispanic, and a Southern girl. So, it’s a little bit of a mix and match.
The three soldiers are Colee (Rachel McAdams), Cheever (Tim Robbins), and TK (Michael Peña). Colee and TK are on a 30-day leave, but Cheever is done for good. When they get into the US, they find that their connecting flights are all cancelled due to a black-out, and they decide to rent a car and hit the road. Cheever’s headed to St. Louis to see his wife and son, and Colee and TK plan to fly to Las Vegas from St. Louis when they get there.
The usual road movie misadventures occur. They travel through hotels, bars, and diners–each step bringing the trio closer. The motivations behind their treks emerge. Colee is going to Las Vegas, because the family of her boyfriend Randy (who was killed in combat) live there, and she wishes to return his valuable guitar to them. TK, who wounded his private parts, is headed to Las Vegas to find high-end prostitutes to help his recent issues with impotency. He knows that his relationship with his fiance will go nowhere if his parts are not functioning.
Problems arise on their journey. When Cheever gets home, he finds a wife who has fallen out of love with him, and a son who needs $20 thousand to pay for his tuition to Stanford. Depressed, Cheever continues on with Colee and TK, instead of staying with his family. He dreams up a plan to win big in Vegas to get the tuition money. All along the way, the three come to realize that the home they once prayed to return does not exist, and everybody they come into contact with do nothing but remind them of the horrors of their recent tour.
It would be wrong to peg this film as a “Iraq War” movie. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, the phrase ‘Iraq’ never is uttered from any of the characters. The circumstances overseas hang like a shadow over all of the actions that the three main characters take. It’s cheif difference from Best Years of Our Lives is that it refuses to address the war concretely, and focuses solely on the charms of the characters. The film does not rely on sentiment to make these character’s sympathetic, because they are so exquisitely written, and unravel perfectly. The film would make just as much sense if they were not returning soldiers, but just traveling through.
Much like Burger’s previous film The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones drags its feet at moments and has issues both creating and resolving conflicts. The ending, most of all, seems abrupt and tacked on, as if the was nothing left in the creative tank, and the story just fell off the table. It’s a flaw I’m willing to forgive, because watching these three intruiging characters in a situation, no matter how contrived, is a delight. Scenes such as TK contemplating fleeing to Canada before his next tour, or Colee seeing Randy’s parents are conducted with such poigniancy and realism.
The strength of the film comes from its cast. Peña, an actor usually remembered for bit parts in great films (Million Dollar Baby, for example), achieves the most fully realized performance in his young career. TK is a young man convinced of his own self-worth and future success, that it blinds him of his own immaturity, and Peña is able to display that self-righteous immaturity perfectly. Robbins, an established actor in his own right, does his best work here since Mystic River, as the patriarch of the group. McAdams, already known as a beauty, is given her first really chance to expand her talent as an actress. She plays Colee sweet but feisty, pious but ignorant, and it is easily the best work she has ever done.
A film like this is very pleasing to watch. People have real problems in the real world. They are not fighting villains in clown make-up or chasing after murderous vigilante cops, they are dealing with issues that burden all people, not matter their past actions. The film is a true delight, with wonderful, inspired performances. The film will probably get swallowed up this weekend by films like Eagle Eye, where you get a more instant gratification. But anyone who worries that a film like this won’t bring a full catharsis shouldn’t. It comes with a vengeance.
Directed by Neil Burger