TK (Michael Peña) loves to work a crowd. As Teddy Roosevelt's son famously said of his father, he wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. Actually, TK just wants to tell you about his remarkable experiences as the bride and the corpse, in his easygoing, no-really, I'm-not-BS'ing-you style. He's just holding forth on the extreme gratitude with which his girlfriend responds to his almost mystical knowledge of how to touch a woman, and is verging into the subject of multiple women, when the roadside IED hits.
No one is killed, though TK's weapon catches some shrapnel, rendering it useless and possibly saving his life. Then one of his buddies notices the slowly expanding patch of blood near the crotch of his fatigues, and the possibility suggests itself that the shrapnel-damaged weapon may be symbolic foreshadowing. Yes: TK has lost his mojo, in more ways than one, at least for the time being. Good luck getting him to talk now.
Colee (Rachel McAdams) lugs a fine guitar around with her, but she doesn't play it. She's more comfortable with her weapon in her hands, almost unsettlingly so, considering the frequency with which she thinks about having her weapon when she doesn't: sometimes wishing she did, sometimes glad she doesn't. The latter is probably the more sensible reaction.
Like TK, Colee has 30 days' leave due to an injury, though she isn't concerned about that; she was only shot in the leg. What matters is the guitar, which is not her instrument, but her mission: She's determined to return it to the family of its late owner, a fellow soldier who was also her boyfriend. The story behind the guitar is almost as incredible as TK's whoppers, the difference being that Colee believes her story completely.
Cheever? He's done. Out. He's done his duty, and he's going home. No-nonsense, down to earth, a calm eye amid chaotic circumstances, Cheever (Tim Robbins) seems the most centered, together guy in the movie, if not the entire Iraqi deployment. Technically he's injured too, and he doesn't mind acknowledging that he hurt his back when a Porta-John fell on him from a forklift. Aghast at such candor, TK tries to explain to Cheever the necessity of having a better story for the ladies, but Cheever breezily brushes this aside. He loves that Porta-John; it saved his life.
The taproot of Cheever's emotional strength seems to be his marriage. When Colee, examining a photo, cheerily observes that his wife is a looker, Cheever willingly agrees. "I don't know what she's doing with a guy like me," he comments, "and I'm not going to ask." Robbins is such a good actor that he sells the line as a self-deprecating lover's devotion, and it might not even occur to you to wonder whether this isn't foreshadowing, too.
Colee, Cheever and TK are The Lucky Ones—the ones who lived and came home, or at least have lived so far. Of course it turns out that each of them has deeper wounds than the ones that brought them stateside; in fact, their real wounds are ones they had at the time they signed up, whether they knew it or not.
This could be the setup for a maudlin morass of introspective angst, but writer/director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) and co-writer Dirk Wittenborn want The Lucky Ones to be the Sideways or Little Miss Sunshine of the Iraqi war genre—and so Colee, Cheever and TK wind up together on a cross-country road trip of self-discovery. It's the American road-movie comedy as self-help therapy, and if it's a little glib about the trio's various issues and how they're addressed, well, that's the nature of the genre.
Harder to overlook are the lapses that suggest the filmmakers don't necessarily understand their own characters much better than the civilians they encounter in their travels. The first key turning point, a painful reunion scene, is off-puttingly unconvincing; for a man like Cheever to be that wrong about the whole fabric of his life either defies belief, or at least requires more explanation or insight than the filmmakers have to offer. At one point I found myself pondering the long-shot possibility of a character suffering from a personality-altering brain tumor or something, which is as sure a sign as anything I can think of that the story isn't working.
Then there's Colee's Southern-fried fundamentalist religiosity. Colee drags her male companions to a vaguely Pentecostal-type service and even makes a point of asking for prayer, and she has very definite ideas about morality and eschatology—so definite that she warns Cheever that if he commits suicide, he will go, not merely to hell, but what is apparently worse, to "the lake of faahr." Yet when the nature of TK's injury becomes clear, Colee begins a frank, extensive analysis of practical erotic possibilities for "pleasuring" his girlfriend, including considering a "threesome," possible paraphernalia, and so forth—without raising any moral considerations at all.
Later, Colee makes a point of engaging the services of a trio of friendly itinerant "sex workers" to try to help TK get his groove back, though she had earlier apparently been disparaging of what she presumed were his prurient reasons for wanting to go to Las Vegas. And when she discovers another character in an adulterous one-night stand, her main reaction is good-natured merriment. What exactly is her religious background again? And I don't care how uninhibited or plainspoken Colee is—nobody without a mental disorder wanders into a strange church service and blithely announces prayer requests on sensitive subjects with that level of specificity, particularly on behalf of others.
After running through some pretty contrived paces for much of its running time, The Lucky Ones has some surprises in the last act that ultimately make it more satisfying than it might have been. Honor, sacrifice, and loyalty do count for something, and tough decisions characters thought they would never make turn out to be thinkable after all.
Refreshingly, The Lucky Ones avoids the pitfall affecting so many recent Hollywood offerings touching on this subject matter: it isn't political. (The very presence of the famously outspoken Robbins as a Midwestern military man at least threatens to raise the political temperature, but it's like what Harrison Ford said about kissing Anne Heche in Six Days, Seven Nights: "It's called acting.")
In fact, it isn't until the very last scene that the film commits to particular locations in the Middle East; prior to that, when a civilian asks the three, "Were you over there?" it could refer to Afghanistan, or for that matter any of hundreds of oversea bases.
It's one of the movie's nice touches that civilians are genuinely appreciative of the soldiers' service "over there." On more than one occasion the protagonists' veteran status gets them special treatment, and it becomes a running joke that they can't thank anyone without getting the reply, "No—thank you." Over time this "Thank you" becomes a little shallow, but it isn't insincere. The movie is like that too, I think.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- One of the film's running themes is truth and falsehood. What are some of the reasons characters in the film tell lies? Are any of these reasons any better or worse than any others? Can a lie ever be justifiable?
- Is there ever such a thing as too much truth? Does any character in the film illustrate that principle? When can it be better not to tell the whole truth?
- When Cheever is asked what the soldiers "over there" are trying to accomplish, he replies that they're trying to keep from being killed. What do you think of this answer? Do you know anyone who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan? What have you learned from them about the conflict in that region?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Lucky Ones is rated R for "violence, profanity, sexual situations." There's a roadside bombing and some brief scuffling in a bar that doesn't quite become a brawl. Two otherwise married characters are seen in flagrante delicto (no explicit nudity) by an unhealthily interested third party, and there's a fair amount of crude or sexually explicit dialogue, often related to TK's condition. There is also some misuse of the Lord's name.
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