February 2, 2009

The Lucky Ones

luckyones Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****

Can a movie that begins in today's Iraq and then tracks the furlough of two American soldiers, along with another who's actually finished his tours of duty, possibly be apolitical? Can it refuse to address whether Iraq was right or wrong -- except via the eyes of some of the home-front folk, and even then so glancingly that their opinions seem paltry? Or is that the point? "What do you think we're doing over there? What were you doing over there?" asks the nasty, confronting character played by John Heard, to the tired, quiet one played so resonantly by Tim Robbins. "Trying to stay alive," comes the reply.

Director/co-writer (with Dirk Wittenborn) Neil Burger (The Illusionist) has created something special with The Lucky Ones: a road/buddy movie in which one of those buddies is a gal; a film about self-discovery that makes the journey achingly real even as the destination remains ongoing; a story that quietly indicts us Americans who gave up not a thing while our countrymen died and killed fighting an "enemy" who had never attacked us. (We're giving things up now, of course: an unhappy continuation of the saga of our past eight-years.) All of the above is implicit in this movie, by the way. I have no idea on which side of the red/blue spectrum Burger resides, nor does it matter. Explicitly, he and Wittenborn (Fierce People) have given us a consistently interesting story inhabited by three wonderful characters -- funny sad, real and rich -- each of whom grows richer as the movie proceeds.

Robbins has a passel of interesting films and roles to his credit over the past few years -- The Secret Life of Words, Zathura, Catch a Fire, Noise, City of Ember -- but none except the first of these is anywhere as interesting as this film. Michael Peña (from TV's Felicity and The Shield as well as the films Crash and World Trade Center) makes a great foil for Robbins. Young, smart (though not as smart as he thinks) and vulnerable, the actor lets us see all of this in increments just large enough that we want to know more. And that gal? She's played by Rachel McAdams, who, along with Michelle Williams, is one of today's best young actresses. McAdams (Mean Girls, Canada's brilliant TV series Slings & Arrows, Wes Craven's fabulous Red Eye, Married Life, even in the underrated Rob Schneider movie The Hot Chick) always gets it right and, here, she creates her most memorable character, Colee Dunn; I could watch a dozen more movies tracking this young woman's life.

As with most road movies some events will grab you more than others. Hardest to swallow, perhaps, is the out-of-nowhere tornado (although this is how tornadoes often happen). Yet the events themselves are often less important than the results that occur because of them. The ending of the film may be its most unusual feature. I am giving nothing away, plot wise, by saying that it is one of the most quietly soaring finales in memory -- yet one that cannot help but leave you equally bereft. An odd mix, this, and, as endings go, unforgettable. Who are the lucky ones? You'll decide exactly who merits this appellation. For my money, it's we viewers.

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Posted by cphillips at February 2, 2009 2:13 PM

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