I know it’s an easy play on the title, but The Lucky Ones are the folks in the theater next door to Neil Burger’s heartfelt but deeply, deeply flawed drama about three Iraq soldiers on a bizarre road trip across America’s heartland. Despite a heart that’s clearly in the right place and three very good actors in the lead roles, The Lucky Ones can be easily discarded onto the pyre of failed Iraq War movies like Lions For Lambs, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, and Redacted. Yes, The Lucky Ones is different, in that it’s an Iraq War movie with barely any scenes in Iraq, but it falls victim to much of the same manipulative string-pulling that befell the other films about the conflict. The actors do everything they can to get out of the way of the overwritten, on-the-nose screenplay, but writers Neil Burger and Dirk Wittenborn steadfastly refuse to give them anything believable to work with in The Lucky Ones.
The Lucky Ones opens with the cocky T.K. (Michael Pena) in Iraq. His convoy gets hit and he takes a piece of shrapnel in the leg, rendering him impotent. When he gets home on leave, he’s too embarrassed to tell his fiancée about his little problem, so he decided to go to Vegas to get a sex worker to help him get it up again. In the airport, T.K. runs into a problem when all the flights are delayed due to an NYC blackout. That's when he meets two other Iraq vets, Cheever (Tim Robbins) and Colee (Rachel McAdams), the former finishing his tour of duty and the latter just home on break. The elder Cheever is going to surprise his wife at home in St. Louis (we all know how that goes in movies) while the super-sweet Colee plans to return the guitar of her deceased fellow soldier and lover to his family. Deciding to turn their airport delay into a mutually-beneficially cross-country caravan, Cheever rents a car and the road trip begins.
The preceding paragraph only gives you a glimpse of the clichés at play in The Lucky Ones, and Burger and Wittenborn are nearly defiant in their refusal to make their script feel believable. It’s not just a matter of too many coincidences or clichés. When a screenplay requires a tornado, a Winnebago full of sex workers, and a legendary casino robbery to resolve itself, you might want to go back to the drawing board. It’s as if Burger and Wittenborn knew that their set-up was a little far-fetched and decided to just go for broke from there. The second half of The Lucky Ones is so ridiculous that an alien invasion wouldn’t have really shocked me.
The problem is - if The Lucky Ones isn’t believable, it isn’t anything. I suppose Burger could have gone to the other extreme and made a fairy tale of a movie, but they clearly want to pull emotional heartstrings. McAdams does the best work at that, making Colee a tough but fragile character and the only one who feels genuine. Robbins looks absolutely lost here and Pena isn’t believable. They’re both usually great actors but they can’t break through the pablum. Only McAdams makes any headway there at all.
The faintest praise I can give The Lucky Ones is that I never despised it because its heart was always in the right place. Yes, real soldiers deserve better than this dreck, but the movie never feels like exploitation like some lesser Iraq movies have. I’m sure a lot of bad fiction has been written about veterans and current soldiers in the Iraq War. It’s just not that often that it gets shot and projected on to a big screen.
Rating: ONE AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: September 26, 2008
Starring: Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, and Rachel McAdams
Director: Neil Burger
Writer: Neil Burger and Dirk Wittenborn