Great road movies take their characters from Point A to Point B down circuitous routes, with daunting obstacles, oddball surprises and personal revelations a key part of the journey. Neil Burger's The Lucky Ones falls short of greatness, but this disarming and deftly balanced film - about three returning Iraq war veterans sharing a minivan from New York to Las Vegas - is still very much worth catching.
Thrown together by chance - and the generosity of a Dollar Rent A Car clerk at JFK - T.K. (Michael Peña), Colee (Rachel McAdams), and Cheever (Tim Robbins) head west, each with a mission, each trying to come to terms with his or her experiences on the Middle East battlegrounds.
T.K. took a chunk of shrapnel in his private parts and worries how his girlfriend will receive him, now that his very manhood is in question. Colee, still limping from a leg wound, is bringing a prized guitar to the parents of her Army boyfriend, who is dead, gone. She's never met the bereaved mother and father, and her own family life is a mess. Cheever, a Guardsman called to active duty, has done his turn and just wants to go home, see his wife and college-bound son.
McAdams, Peña and Robbins are great together, and Burger - who directed the very different Edward Norton magician period piece, The Illusionist - tracks his actors as they drive the interstates and side roads, yapping, arguing, learning the deeper, darker aspects of their characters' lives. If a couple of the plot devices seem contrived, The Lucky Ones makes up for them with sharp, heartfelt performances, and a deceptively easygoing narrative style.
For various reasons, movies about the war in Iraq have not fared well at the box office, but The Lucky Ones deserves better. Yes, the shadow of the war hangs over the film - the trauma, the fear, the physical and psychic wounds - but this is more than the story of soldiers grappling with stress and doubt as they reenter the "normal" flow of domestic life. It's about strangers bonding, about friendship and discovery, about the comedy and tragedy of the human experience.