It’s hard to find the genuine heartfelt moments in “The Lucky Ones,” a story about three Iraq War soldiers on a brief road trip back in the U.S., under the clutter of narrative contrivances and coincidences. Shot in a naturalistic, entirely different style from that of director Neil Burger’s last film, the elegant “The Illusionist,” the new picture reps a comedown after that surprise 2006 hit. A good cast keeps the journey watchable, but this is another Iraq-themed title seemingly destined for quick playoff after its long-delayed Sept. 26 release.
A working-class drama intended to reach common folk where they live, the script by Burger and Dirk Wittenborn centers on characters who have not thought deeply or well about their lives and attempt to make the right decisions under difficult, likely life-changing circumstances.
After a tour of duty in Iraq, three Americans fly home from Germany, each facing a welcome more uncertain than they can know. Colee (Rachel McAdams), a private with a wounded leg, plans to show up unannounced at the Las Vegas home of her late boyfriend’s parents, present them with his old guitar and hopefully score a place to stay before returning for another tour in 30 days. TK (Michael Pena), also on leave for a month, is due to see his girlfriend on the West Coast but, as he hasn’t mentioned the shrapnel injury that’s rendered him sexually MIA, he’d like to cure the condition before the reunion.
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By contrast, 50ish reservist Cheaver (Tim Robbins) is now done with the Army. Not having seen his wife and son for an unexplained two years, Cheaver hopes to return to St. Louis and normalcy. But as soon as they arrive in New York, the three hit their first speed bump — a widespread blackout preventing domestic flights — so they rent a car to drive to Missouri, from where Colee and TK will go their own ways.
Unacquainted before, they quickly remedy that. Colee is an open-hearted, overly trusting proletarian livewire who defends her ne’er-do-well ex-b.f. and isn’t above starting a barroom brawl (in a poorly staged scene) when some local dimwits piss her off. TK is proud and slow to let down his guard, convinced of his capacities as a leader.
Glad just to be alive, Cheaver arrives home to a rude awakening: His wife, in earshot of the others, instantly announces she wants a divorce. Then his son enthuses that he’s been accepted at Stanford but needs $20,000 within three weeks or he’ll lose his spot.
His world having collapsed on top of him, Cheaver drives on with his soldier buddies to sort things out, to Vegas by way of Denver. A visit to a megachurch and a kind invitation from a wealthy congregant turns into a corny comic sex romp; even more contrived is a side trip smack into a tornado, which triggers unexpected, sitcom-worthy consequences.
The daily life-and-death crises these characters faced in Iraq are replaced on their trip by the less dire but still pressing matters facing them at home, the subtext being that Iraq represents a distraction from domestic matters, which consequently suffer from neglect. There are moments when the sought-after poignancy born of this dilemma is felt, but they are all too fleeting and dominated by exaggerated dramatics and broad comedy, especially as they relate to intimate matters. Tone overall is ill managed.
Keeping it human, to the extent that it is, are the performances. Playing a character who’s lame, unformed and unadorned, McAdams remains as captivating as ever, maintaining the chemistry even when the balance of ingredients gets seriously out of whack. Pena nicely catches an individual in transition from cocky macho man to a cooler, more mature fellow. Robbins underplays with confidence and great effectiveness, etching an Everyman of no particular distinction who works through a vexing decision to the point of making it look easy.
Tech considerations put mobility ahead of refinement, and a varied song-dominated soundtrack shifts the mood like gear changes.