"The Lucky Ones" is as close as a movie about three Iraq war soldiers should come to mediocre TV comedy.
Tim Robbins, Michael Peña, and Rachel McAdams play Fred Cheaver, TK Poole, and Colee Dunn - a reservist, a medic, and a private, battle-wounded strangers with a common Army bond. Fred has finished his last tour, and TK and Colee are on a monthlong leave.
They arrive at JFK airport together, discover that a blackout has canceled their connecting flights, and manage to snag the last rental car, which they drive to St. Louis where Cheaver lives. A series of glitches and catastrophes follow (divorce papers, a car accident, $20,000 to raise, a tornado, impotence), some more bearable and believable than others.
Director Neil Burger co-wrote the movie with Dirk Wittenborn, and while he doesn't always seem sure whether to play the material for pathos or comedy, he's confident with his cast.
Robbins keeps a tight lid on what could have been another of his yahoos. He takes a put-upon a man and relieves him of any gratuitous angst. Cheaver loses it. He breaks down. But Robbins never cracks up; he's too busy playing the adult to two kids. It's one of his smartest performances.
Peña is as good as usually he is - funny, slow to anger, touching. He and McAdams have a sensual scene together huddled inside a drainpipe. She's almost unrecognizable, with her hair pulled back and a mouth that never stops running. The character is a sweet, twanging mess of silliness, churlishness, and childishness. This is a Hilary Swank part that Swank herself probably couldn't relax enough to play.
Occasionally, you wonder how these three characters might handle the theater of combat. "The Lucky Ones" doesn't have a thunderous statement to make about the war or any flashback footage to share. It contains very little military shop talk. It's the emotional opposite of Kimberly Peirce's rumbling "Stop-Loss," which came out in the spring and also featured a soldier on a forced road trip.
But "The Lucky Ones" has more chilling real-world details. When we see a recruiting booth stationed outside a casino, we know the Army is another gamble. But the woman and two men in this movie need the military as much as the military needs them. "The Lucky Ones" is part of a disturbing new era in American war movies. Military service is no longer simply an expression of patriotism. It's another way to make ends meet.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.