Six years after the start of the Iraq War, no movie with the war as its subject has drawn much of an audience. In one weekend alone, more people saw Bride Wars than saw Rendition, Stop-Loss, and Lions for Lambs put together. Then there’s The Lucky Ones, whose audience in theaters was truly miniscule. And that is a shame. For though The Lucky Ones is not a great movie, it has a few things going for it—chief among them, the three strong performances of its mini-ensemble cast.
The movie (out on DVD since January) follows three soldiers returning to the US who band together after landing in New York in the middle of a blackout. They are a demographer’s dream: Tim Robbins’ older white guy, Michael Peña’s young Hispanic man, and Rachel McAdams’ southern naïf. Robbins’ Cheaver is done with his soldiering—and, like Odysseus, he is the one returning, in theory, to a wife—while the other two are on leave, Peña’s T.K. to see if his “upper thigh” wound will matter to his fiancée, and McAdams’ Colee to see if the family of her dead war buddy will accept her as their own.
Before we know even this much about the three soldiers, we get a nifty sequence of scenes that seem designed to remind us of the innocence of Stateside life now that the war has taken the fighting Over There. An airport packed with stranded passengers; LED screens announcing a full slate of cancelled flights; rental-car desks mobbed by grounded passengers. But it’s nothing to worry about: the only emergency that has caused this chaos is a blackout in New York. Later on, these soldiers from a conflict known for its roadside bombs (one of which has caused T.K.’s injury) drive around in a rental mini-van like a new-formed family. And when they lock themselves out of the van, they bushwhack through marshy grass to a Hummer dealership and get driven back to the van in the civilian version of their Iraq ride. An accident in the van a few miles later is just that: an accident. Again, these are the innocent iterations of the facts of war. The marsh grass isn’t in Baghdad, the Hummer is high-viz yellow, not camo, and the accident has nothing to do with an IED.
But Burger’s message here is unclear. Is he saying that by taking the fighting out of the United States, the Iraq War allows us to drive our Hummers without worrying about armor plating and to face a grounded fleet of planes with only the normal amount of aggravation? I’d be surprised if Robbins would sign on for a movie with a message like this. So then, what? Is Burger (who wrote the screenplay with Dirk Wittenborn) trying to suggest that in fact the war is always present in our lives now? Viewers of The Lucky Ones can’t help but notice the dangerous versions that lurk in every innocent scene, every military echo in a civilian moment. But again, the movie’s altogether jovial tone undermines this darker view. We can’t be too gloomy about what is, in so many ways, just a road movie. In the end, The Lucky Ones can’t decide what kind of story it wants to tell: an innocent adventure or a tale of cynicism and sorrow.
Fortunately, there is more to the movie than a policy paper about the Iraq War. The connecting lives of T.K., Cheaver, and Colee are full of stories and lies—benevolent lies that each one tells to him or her self, and that they tell to each other. As they drive from New York to St. Louis and eventually to Las Vegas, they form shifting pairs whose job it is to sustain the lie the third soldier insists on telling. It’s a kindness they perform for each other, and to watch it over the course of two hours is quite moving.
McAdams doesn’t quite get the Southern accent to shade beyond stereotype, but her performance as the gullible but at times insightful Colee is nicely nuanced (there’s a fine moment on an airport sidewalk towards the end of the film that’s what DVD scan buttons are for). Robbins has a harder task, with a character whose motivations aren’t always clear, but he conveys those mysteriously-motivated emotions with subtlety. Then there is Michael Peña, whose storyline in Crash was the only one not burdened with self-righteous obviousness. Robbins and McAdams have had plenty of exposure, but it’s a particular shame that The Lucky Ones’ tiny audience and its fleeting moment in theaters will keep Peña from getting more praise.
In the interview that is part of the DVD package, Burger says that, with The Lucky Ones, he wanted to create a portrait of the country as it is at this particular moment in history. I’m not at all sure that this is what he’s done. But where he fails to provide a large, realistic picture of the states his three soldiers travel through, he succeeds in illuminating the tiny world of their momentarily intersecting lives inside a maroon minivan. Not a bad accomplishment at all.