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MOVIE REVIEW
The Lucky Ones (2008)

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James Bridges/Roadside Attractions

Writer-director Neil Burger has transformed himself from a promising new talent to a major filmmaker on the strength of two showy, well-constructed films: the buzzed-about 2002 mockumentary “Interview with the Assassin” and the 2006 surprise hit “The Illusionist.” By contrast, his newest effort “The Lucky Ones” seems at first glance like an anticlimactic third act. It concerns three American servicemen stationed overseas who are back in the country on a one-month leave and embarking on an impromptu road trip because returning to their respective homes isn’t an option. The film actually has its share of smoke and mirrors just like Mr. Burger’s previous features, and these will surely catch moviegoers off guard given that the selling point here isn’t that anticipated giant plot twist. But perhaps the biggest surprise in store is how genuinely affecting “The Lucky Ones” turns out to be.

Tim Robbins stars as Cheever, a reservist who is in danger of losing his wife and his job after two years of active duty overseas. Rachel McAdams plays the chatty Colee, who is estranged from her mother and naively hopes a fallen comrade’s family will take her in. T.K. (Michael Peña, best known as the locksmith in “Crash”) has sustained an injury and fears rejection by his fiancée. Once back on American soil, the three find themselves stranded in J.F.K. airport after a major power outage (presumably the Northeast Blackout of 2003). They decide to share the last rental car they can find and hit the Interstate. The film’s title simply suggests that the trio made it through Afghanistan or Iraq alive when many of their fellow soldiers didn’t.

Most of the scenarios that arise in “The Lucky Ones” seem contrived and forced, and it’s a true testament to the cast and crew that they manage to elevate all of it to the level of something profound. One can almost anticipate Cheever’s marital problems, or else one of the film’s leads would miss out on the rest of the trip. And of course, the three unwittingly find themselves in the midst of a couple of heated debates about the war in Iraq. They even drive past a car in which passengers appear to be from the Middle East and the woman is wearing a burka. But Mr. Burger and co-writer Dirk Wittenborn wisely dissolve these scenes long before they become melodramatic or overwrought. In fact, the best scenes here manage to capture an absurdist sense of Americana the way Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor did with their own pair of road movies, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.”

“The Lucky Ones” doesn’t really have a political agenda. It doesn’t take a stance on the Iraq war or make a statement about American armed forces in general. If anything, the receptions these soldiers get from ordinary folks they encounter range from insincere to ungrateful. At its core, this film is really about Cheever, Colee and T.K. as human beings, and it doesn’t resort to dramatic shorthand by using their profession to define them as characters. It doesn’t patronize them as “Jarhead” did, but it also avoids gratuitously drumming up sympathy or patriotism. Mostly everything in the film, regardless of how contrived the set up, eventually rings true. The unknown performers in supporting roles are especially amazing. The only thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is the character Colee, who seems way too sheltered and undisciplined for someone who has served in the military and traveled abroad. “The Lucky Ones” ends with a clever twist and a happy ending, but over the course of the journey Mr. Berger has demonstrated that neither is requisite in the art of storytelling.

THE LUCKY ONES

Opens on Sept. 26 in the United States.

Directed by Neil Burger; written by Mr. Burger and Dirk Wittenborn; director of photography, Declan Quinn; edited by Naomi Geraghty; music by Rolfe Kent; production designers, Jan Roelfs and Leslie Pope; produced by Mr. Burger, Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Rick Schwartz; released by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Rachel McAdams (Colee Dunn), Tim Robbins (Fred Cheever) and Michael Peña (T. K. Poole).

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