Back from Iraq

Luck is not only fickle, it’s relative. So when Colee Dunn (McAdams), whose boyfriend was killed in the combat zone she has just left behind, declares: “We’re the lucky ones, aren’t we?” she feels grateful simply because she and her two traveling companions are still alive. Soldiers on their way back from Iraq, they share a rental car after a blackout in New York cancels connecting flights. They head for Las Vegas, the capital of luck.

The Lucky Ones is a road movie, but, though Colee, Fred Cheever (Robbins), and T.K. Poole (Peña) cover more than 1,700 miles after deplaning at JFK, the film is remarkably indifferent to the physical landscape of the United States. Only Colee, the youngest and perkiest of the odd trio, expresses any awe for the ambience, which, aside from a stretch in the Rockies, consists of interchangeable interchanges in Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. If Easy Rider was an elegy for America the Beautiful, betrayed by the venal and vicious inhabitants whom Billy and Captain America meet along their way, The Lucky Ones covers the hollowed ground of a culture gone bland. The returning warriors’ homeland of Hummer showrooms, manicured subdivisions, and megachurches lacks either majesty or grace.

Cheever, an older reservist eager to rejoin his wife and son in St. Louis after two years of active duty, does most of the driving, but what drives the screenplay are the shifting relationships among three damaged souls. Their physical injuries are quickly summarized: a field port-a-potty fell on Cheever’s back, Colee has a wound in the thigh, and Poole was shot in a spot that makes a mockery of his manhood. Poole wakes up screaming in the night, but all three suffer psychic wounds. Confined to a rental car, these three mismatched mates, like the trio in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, learn that hell is other people. But in this case they are also therapy.

There is humor scattered across their journey — when Cheever inadvertently locks them out of the car, when a preacher prays over Poole’s ailing penis, when Colee insists that drinking whiskey through a straw intensifies inebriation. But this is for the most part a sobering look at the American homefront in the midst of a dreadful, prolonged war.

Unsubstantiated urban legend has it that returning Vietnam veterans were spat upon, but these warriors back from Iraq are generally met with effusive gratitude. “Thank you,” they tell the rental-car agent who goes out of his way to find them a vehicle. “Thank you,” he replies. Only once is the purpose of their service put into question. “These guys are screwed, and for what?” asks a privileged local merrymaker at a party in Kansas City. “What are you doing over there?” The answer, “We’re just trying to stay alive,” is the only geopolitical analysis offered by The Lucky Ones.

When I spoke with writer-director Neil Burger by phone, I asked him whether he, his fellow writer, Dirk Wittenborn, and their backers feared the box-office curse of Iraq, the dismal financial fate of topical films such as Lions for Lambs, Stop-Loss, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, and Grace Is Gone. “We became more and more conscious of it,” he said. “As we were writing, those films had not yet come out. But to me, the movie is much more about America now than just about the war in Iraq. What’s different about our movie is that it’s funny even as it’s an epic story, happy and sad at the same time. Humor has the ability to heal the human spirit.”

Burger’s working title was The Return, but he explained that he changed it to The Lucky Ones not merely because the characters are convinced that, for all their woes, things could be worse or because Vegas is the travelers’ destination: “There was a crummy horror movie of the same name coming out at the same time.”

Since the power of the film is so dependent on the interaction of Cheever, Colee, and Poole, I asked Burger at what point the parts were cast with Robbins, McAdams, and Peña. “I don’t seem to write with actors in mind,” he replied. “But as soon as I finished, those three were at the top of my list. They didn’t know each other before filming began. But they were stuck in the van together throughout the shoot, and what developed was not much different from what you see on screen. They became a family.”

The Lucky Ones is Burger’s third feature film. His first, Interview With the Assassin (2002), is the story of a man who attempts to pin down the truth about a quirky old neighbor who claims to have been the second gunman in Dealey Plaza. Set in Vienna in the early 20th century, his second film, The Illusionist (2006), is the story of a magician in love with a woman above his social station. And his next project, Dark Fields, is based on a novel by Alan Glynn and will mark the first time Burger directs something he did not also write. It is the story of a frustrated author who takes a pill to make himself smarter.

Is there an auteur there? Asked where the signature in his varied oeuvre lies, Burger replied: “What connects these four films is that they are all about people who are powerless and then do something to empower themselves.” Directors are the lucky ones if their work catches on, but it is easy to feel powerless on the eve of your film’s release if Iraq figures in the plot and the public chooses movies that help it to forget about such things. During his 30-day leave back in the States, Sgt. Poole, who has so far survived three tours of duty, is anxious about going back. He has learned not to put his trust in the vagaries of fortune: “You can only be lucky for so long.” •

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