It’s been a long time since I’ve endured a movie so featureless. Neil Burger’s The Lucky Ones has so little personality that my notepad was virtually blank when I left the theater, and my mind a fair reflection of my notepad. A day later, I still don’t know what to make of the thing. Most movies leave dents or teeth-marks — or at least delicate little paw-prints — on my psyche, but The Lucky Ones was too nebulous to make any kind of impression. They say the mediocre ones are the hardest to write about, but how to do you write about a movie with no presence to speak of? The Lucky Ones ran across the screen like a faint singsong in the distance, not melodic, but not discordant enough to really notice, either. It just kind of squatted up there without much purpose — not political enough to jerk your knees at, not bad enough to annoy, not good enough to esteem, not entertaining enough to pass the time. Is it possible for a movie to be too subtle, even for lovers of subtle, ambiguous, slow-moving film? Or did Burger and his co-writer, Dirk Wittenborn — who collaborated on The Illusionist — just lose their grip on a type of film they weren’t built to pull off? The Lucky Ones is so featureless, I can’t even determine that much — I can’t even tell if the filmmakers hit their freaking mark. My university overlords pay me to interpret narrative for a living, but here I sit like a feckless illiterate, completely stumped. This won’t be a very helpful review.
At least there’s always plot summary and production details to grease the rails: The Lucky Ones is a scrap of a road movie that follows the adventures of three US soldiers on leave from Iraq. The oldest soldier, Sergeant Cheever (Tim Robbins), just closed out his final tour of duty and is eager to get home to St. Louis to see his wife and son. The youngest of the three, Colee (Rachel McAdams), comes home to heal her leg and return the guitar of a dead soldier to his family in Vegas. And somewhere age-wise between the two is TK (Michael Peña), who took shrapnel near the jibblies and hopes he can find a pro to man him up again before he visits his fiancée, also in Vegas. When their plane lands in New York City, the soldiers learn their connecting flights have been delayed up to two days thanks to a blackout, so they rent a minivan and head southwest into a series of moments and encounters that aren’t quirky enough to give the movie quirky charm or purposeful enough to bulk it up with meaning.
Along the way, our trio’s dog-tags earn them free meals, cheerful roadside assistance, sexual favors, and last available rental cars. They earn iterations of “No, thank YOU” from grateful patriots who alienate the soldiers with their rote gestures and platitudes. They earn them a few insults, too, from college students as substantial as an empty shot-glass, and from dissatisfied old suits critical of the war (watch for John Heard’s eyelashes in a small role as the latter). They trundle along the interstate, learn that nothing goes quite as planned as if it were a revelation that needed learnin’, and interlock their lives in fairly movie-of-the-week fashion. They flare in spats or tears, then settle back into camaraderie and do their best to affect us with their generosity towards one another when it counts. It’s mechanically precious and pull-the-lever moving — the way studio bots’ products look when they take a stab at Small Meaningful Pictures — but it’s more faded than a lot of movies of this stripe. It’s as if Burger opened a pouch of Insta-Indie, added water, and figured out too late that the ingredients were stale but went ahead and served it to us anyway. The Lucky Ones is cheese-fried Americana in all its down-home, empty-calorie glory — less mawkish than some but just as formulaic, and pretentious in its assumption that it has anything insightful to say about people’s basic natures.
Episodes are designed to round out the characters, but the characters already come to us, for the most part, fully formed. When we find Colee enjoying a mega-church pastor’s spiel, for instance, we have our suspicions about her background and beliefs confirmed rather than corrected. Colee is an uneducated girl sketched as sweetly naïve and a lonely girl sketched as sweetly outgoing. Nothing that happens to her or within her throughout the movie complicates our assumptions or allows her to grow. TK, from frame one, is also a bit of a cut-out with his demographically typical values about gender, country and duty. And if Cheever escapes the net of stereotype, his character still ends up weakened by the filmmakers’ telegraphing of his fate; when he moons over a photo of his wife early in the film, we know what’s in store for him in Vegas and we know the news will destroy him. Stereotypes and predictability can help a movie succeed, because filmmakers often use them as building-blocks to slant their story until a strange new quality of light falls on familiar landscapes. The stereotypes and predictability in The Lucky Ones, though, just seem like the products of unimaginative writing, and if it weren’t for the performances of the three leads, we’d be watching less than shadows on the screen.
Robbins, McAdams and Peña deserve no sneering from the critics’ bench — they are all the best things about this movie, even if the latter two aren’t really playing against type. They’re likeable, so it’s hard to be irritated by them as they pull us through a series of contrivances that should make something more of the film but never do. While McAdams’ blitheness is appealing — Colee is adorable without rotting our teeth — the quieter work of Peña and Robbins is the most effective. Cheever is especially substantial, given his steady hum of an arc, and Robbins proves he knows the definition of Acting by humanizing a character to whom Mr. Sarandon would probably have a hard time relating in real life. Robbins’ soldier is neither ignorant nor exploited, and he’s the farthest thing from the one-dimensional yahoo some of us envision when we think “camo.” Cheever and the other two soldiers are neither cartoons of Uncle-Sam pride nor indictments against those who’ve enlisted and contributed to the troubles abroad. They just are, and they’re allowed to exist on a mundane, low-key channel that few Hollywood soldiers ever get to test. That much, at least, is a sign of decent scripting, and however weak the surrounding story and themes — however constrained by type and/or predictability, and however conventionally acted — the leads’ performances are the only food on offer in this film.
We’re definitely not there for the corny soundtrack, or for the corny attempts at humor, or for message. Perhaps part of The Lucky Ones’ problem is that Burger thought he could make an “apolitical” movie about a political hot potato. This might explain why the film is the cinematic equivalent of a tire spinning in mud for two hours — I watched that tire hitch forward hopefully, then hitch back in indecision, then hitch forward, and ultimately make no discursive inroads. However neutral the filmmakers tried to be (and if they were in fact neutral is debatable), they forgot about the perilous space between their own product and their audience’s brows, where opinions collide in a cage-match of directorial intention and viewer interpretation. One can’t make an “apolitical” movie about Iraq right now because certain images are too charged, and because the merest whiff of the place invigorates each viewer’s own perception about the war, which may put the lie to whatever’s happening onscreen. You can’t borrow the image of scared American GIs riding an armored vehicle on a desert road, and not bring along all the emotions and politics which that image conjures up right now. Trying to draw simple over deep complexity results in incompetent, elusive theme-making, and pussyfooting around issues with disingenuous feints of neutrality only serves to insult us.
And then there’s the problem of Burger’s technical approach to the material, which he sometimes captures as if it were bare-bones reality, and sometimes paints like romance. His camera and choice of sets give the film a documentary-mute timber, but he also goes for garish at times, exaggerating moments that are anything but believable in the first place. Again, this dichotomy has been known to work, but not here. As Burger steers the trio through a nation of fast food, mini-malls and mcmansions, are American viewers supposed to feel pride and comfort in these totems, or are they supposed to wonder if this grotty landscape and synthetic lifestyle are worth dying for overseas? Burger’s shitty America isn’t shitty enough to be critical or satiric of its current form (perhaps it was just shitty to my own eye), but it’s not quite real enough merely to serve as incidental backdrop, either. When the trio gives the stink-eye to an Arab family in the next car, are we supposed to tsk-tsk the soldiers’ reactions or be supportive? Or are we invited to step beyond the tension and nod solemn nods at humanity’s fallacy, and simply feel compassion for everyone involved? The Lucky Ones is stuffed with moments like these — moments which may have played out as elegant ambiguity in firmer hands. But when a director mishandles subtle, the result is a muffled wash-out; when I can’t tell if filmmakers are being deliberately ambiguous to make a larger point, or simply ineffectual, I get grumpy. It’s hard to give Burger and Wittenborn credit, and opt charitably for the former, when they demonstrate clumsiness in other thematic zones — their cutesy play on the notion of luck, good and bad, comes straight out of a can, and it’s handled with no real indication of wisdom or talent. Key points are made too faintly, or else with a screech, and this awkwardness washes away what little succeeds in Burger’s difficult proposition of a not-war movie about soldiers. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on September 29, 2008.)