LITTLE ROCK While not as tone-deaf as Irwin Winkler's barely released Home of the Brave (an uncredited updating of William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives), The Lucky Ones is a reductive and unfunny road movie - think Coming Home crossed with Vegas Vacation minus Cousin Eddie - about three Iraqi war veterans returning home after suffering nonmortal wounds in the war zone.
T.K. (Michael Pena) has taken some shrapnel in the groin, leaving him temporarily (he hopes) impotent; Colee (Rachel McAdams) has been shot in the leg and Cheever (Tim Robbins) is the most fortunate of all - he got a back injury when a portable outhouse fell on him before he ever saw action.
The three meet in Germany, where they board a commercial airliner headed for the States and a 30-day furlough for T.K. and Colee. Cheever, however, has the "rest of his life" (foreshadowing alert!) to look forward to - his hitch in the reserves is up and he's through with the military forever.
When they land in New York they find that all their flights have been canceled - an East Coast blackout has wreaked havoc with airline schedules. Cheever has a wife and kid in St. Louis and a credit card so he can rent a car. T.K. and Colee are bound for Las Vegas - she to return a valuable guitar to the family of a fallen comrade, he to check out the physical therapy available from high-priced call girls before admitting to his girlfriend he's like Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises. They rightly sense that moving is better than sitting still for a few days and invite themselves along. OK, Griswoldian father figure Cheever tells them, but everything gets split three ways. No free rides.
From the moment they all pile in the minivan, you have a general sense of how it's going to end. Sure enough, none of the stories the three tell each other are exactly true - they're all self-deluded and they have nothing they can count on except each other.
Poorly written, contrived andpainfully naive, The Lucky Ones is almost - but not quite - redeemed by the solid performances of the three key actors, none of whom is ever completely undone by the leaden lines they're asked to mouth. On the other hand, some of the contrivances are Family Vacation risible - you can probably imagine what happens when T.K. and Colee are forced to cuddle in a culvert to avoid a black tornado that looks like it escaped from a 1960s-era Ajax detergent commercial. And you know the Army's getting desperate when they start walking up to grayheaded guys on the street offering signing bonuses.
Writer-director Neil Burger and co-screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn almost manage to make some sort of point about the aimlessness and moral listlessness of a country transfixed by reality TV during wartime. Unfortunately, The Lucky Ones feels more like a symptom of the malaise than a corrective.
MovieStyle, Pages 41 on 09/26/2008