It was a popular meme last fall to talk about how no one wanted to see movies about Iraq, when big Hollywood productions like The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs tanked at the box office. A year later, the quiet indie The Lucky Ones is almost guaranteed to meet the same fate. Tackling similar themes as Kimberly Peirce's Stop Loss without nearly the same insight, The Lucky Ones gets far more mileage from its personable lead actors than its overused road trip premise.
Cheever (Tim Robbins), Colee (Rachel McAdams) and T.K. (Michael Pena) are all Iraq soldiers back home on leave, with Cheever preparing to hang up the uniform for good. Thanks to airport snafus the three end up in a van on their way to St. Louis, where Cheever will reunite with wife and child and Colee and T.K. will carry on to Vegas, where each has slightly secret business of their own.
But Cheever returns home to find that not only does his wife like things better without him, but his son needs tuition to go to Stanford; apparently never having heard of student loans, a near-suicidal Cheever decides to join Colee and T.K. in Vegas to win enough money for his son's tuition. The other two gradually reveal their goals as well. Colee hopes to find the family of a deceased war buddy and have them take her in, and T.K., with a fiancee waiting in Florida, seeks a prostitute to revive a particular organ injured in combat.
From the start the plot is packed with too many contrivances to bear. Why would Cheever's wife tell him she wants a divorce while Colee and T.K. are sitting in the next room? And why on earth would T.K. drive all the way across the country for a prostitute? A drama this simple doesn't need this much plot, and you can feel screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn straining to keep his unlikely trio together. Well-developed characters could have gone a long way toward making the movie feel more natural, but despite the fact that most of the movie consists of the main characters talking to each other, none of them really emerge as more than a series of ideas and quirks.
It's probably mere coincidence that two other recent movies about the homefront, Grace is Gone and Stop Loss, revolved around cross-country road trips. And it doesn't help The Lucky Ones that both of those films were better, despite their flaws. By telling a story about three strangers, Burger and Wittenborn leave little room to explore how these characters have changed in the eyes of the people who knew them before. In fact, aside from a few physical scars and a flashback or two, the characters don't seem all that changed by their service. Robbins, an actor more than capable of burrowing within a disturbed character, never makes Cheever's thoughts of suicide seem real, and McAdams never quite touches on the anger that lurks beneath Colee's bubbly surface. For the most part they could be any three people, set adrift by the circumstances of life.
Not particularly dark and with no political ax to grind-- none of the characters seem to regret having served-- The Lucky Ones wants to be a road movie that happens to be about Iraq veterans. By largely ignoring the central fact of its characters' lives, though, it becomes a road movie with no purpose, and a war drama with no bite. Some lovely moments of insight, like a church service in the vast Midwest and a tentative romance between Colee and T.K., hint at a smarter, simpler movie not burdened by the wartime issues the filmmakers seem unprepared to address.