“The Lucky Ones,” in which three injured soldiers travel in a minivan across the weirdness of Middle America, represents Hollywood’s latest attempt to turn the Iraq war into socio-entertainment — and the catalog still lacks a gem. Contrived scenarios and trite minidramas eclipse genuine coming-home stories in this soldier-condition, road dramedy.
Director and co-writer Neil Burger avoids politics and grimness and delivers survival and camaraderie in this follow-up to the “The Illusionist.” He scored more reality points with that 2006 fantasy, however, than with this depiction of the personal and familial consequences of war.
Sent home from Iraq for medical reasons, U.S. soldiers Cheever (Tim Robbins), Colee (Rachel McAdams) and T.K. (Michael Peña) decide to share the last rental vehicle at JFK airport rather than wait for their significantly delayed flights. Circumstances land them on a joint adventure from New York to Las Vegas, during which they bond. Colorful heartland pit stops punctuate the ride.
Cheever, a reservist recovering from back surgery, goes home to St. Louis, where neither his wife nor his old employer happily welcomes him. His son needs $20,000 for his Stanford tuition.
T.K., a sergeant, worries that his fiancée will dump him when she learns his shrapnel injury has made him impotent. He hopes Sin City’s sex workers can remedy his condition.
Colee, a private, visits the parents of her killed-in-action boyfriend to give them his guitar. She thinks they’ll regard her as family.
Such things indeed happen to soldiers, and the film, with its three capable lead actors, could have turned them into something absorbing and truthful. But like the similarly themed “Home of the Brave,” it’s a weave of falsities — a bar brawl, a jail episode, a tornado and unbelievable coincidences, as scripted by Burger and David Wittenborn. The uninhibitedness of Colee, who has a way of turning the matter of T.K.’s intimate injury into a public announcement, is apparently supposed to be cute, but it’s a counterproductive use of Mc-Adams’ vim.
Burger has cited “The Last Detail” as an inspiration, but as a soldier road tale, his movie can’t compare. And as a survivor tapestry, it does little justice to those who’ve fought our wars. As its back-in-action soldiers take off into the yonder, the film has us feeling generally sunny. Had it presented its subjects with enough truth to seriously invest us, we’d be worried sick.