The Lucky Ones Review

Sep 25, 2008 | 6:29pm EDT

Movies set in or around the Iraq war have almost universally failed at the box office but it would be a shame if co-writer and director Neil Burger’s heartfelt and engaging road flick about a trio of returning Iraq vets doesn’t find an audience. Actually Iraq is just an underlying plot device to put these three disparate and likeable characters together on a cross-country journey in a cramped minivan. The Lucky Ones is very much in line with the classic Hollywood genre of road movie a la Little Miss Sunshine. In this case three soldiers return to an America that almost seems foreign and find themselves joined at the hip by an experience only they seem to fully understand. When T.K Poole (Michael Pena) Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) and fifty-something reservist Fred Cheever (Tim Robbins) arrive in New York from Germany after a two-year tour of duty they find their connecting flights cancelled because of a power outage. They decide a minivan is the answer and even though they never knew each other before a bond develops as they travel by land to get to their final destinations. Each has complications when they get there. T.K. is dealing with a shrapnel injury to his private parts that has left him impotent and is worried about meeting up with his fiancée; Colee is headed to a meeting with the parents of a deceased fellow soldier with whom she was more than friends; and Cheever returns home to St. Louis only to find that his wife has moved on emotionally and his teenage son needs $20 000 for college. It’s a trip that will change each one of them in significant ways. This modest and understated little movie has some of the best acting we’ve seen all year. Robbins is perfectly cast nicely underplaying a career soldier who finally comes home to stay only to find he no longer has the life he thought was still waiting for him. Pena (World Trade Center Crash) continues to show great promise as T.K. the self-styled leader whose sexual insecurities make him second-guess his relationship with the fiancée he is driving to see. Best of all though is McAdams (The Notebook) who loses herself in sweet Colee Dunn a tough but very well-meaning girl who doles out the kind of encouraging words she really needs for herself. It would be easy to underrate this performance since McAdams makes this young injured army vet seem so effortlessly natural and appealing particularly in a sequence where she brings the dead soldier’s prized guitar back to his parents (nicely played by Annie Corley and John Diehl). Although on the surface this film would seem to be about as far away as you can get from Neil Burger’s previous film the surprise hit and elegant period piece The Illusionist both movies still deal with truth vs. reality and perception to varying degrees. What The Lucky Ones proves without a doubt is that Burger is a talent to be reckoned with. He has taken the shopworn movie staple the road picture and given it life and heart. It’s certainly no easy task to make this kind of movie visually interesting when half the time your three main characters are riding together in a minivan. Miraculously he keeps it interesting and vital (with a special shout-out to cinematographer Declan Quinn). Although Iraq is not completely under the radar the focus here is on the sometimes amusing sometimes maddening sometimes heartbreaking human element the simple unsaid plight of three strangers who find a common bond. That Burger (who co-wrote the script with Dirk Wittenborn) is able to give it all a fresh spin and deliver three such memorable characters is the real achievement.

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