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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Lucky Ones': Unlucky with critics?

September 12, 2008 |  5:43 pm


Sometimes critics can be unbelievably confounding. It's no surprise that reviews up here have been especially good for Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" and Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," especially dire for Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna." But I was shocked to see the critics lining up in a firing squad, pointing the heavy artillery at Neil Burger's "The Lucky Ones." Mcadams2Costarring Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams and Michael Pena, it's a timely, often surprisingly funny drama about a trio of returning Iraq vets taking a road trip across America. For me, it was an affecting story, nicely dramatizing how time in the Army serves as a familial bond for soldiers. It also offers a reminder of what a great young actress we have in McAdams, who hasn't been seen in a widely released film since 2005's "The Family Stone."

But the critical reaction has been venomous. Cinematical called it "trite, phony dreck ... an ill-conceived cross between 'Stop-Loss' and 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles.' " The Hollywood Reporter dismissed it as "dated and contrived." The New York Post's Kyle Smith really got worked up about it, calling it "cheap, ignorant, tone-deaf and condescending," adding that "what's strangest about it is that it actually thinks it's pro-soldier even as it portrays Iraq vets home on leave as foolish, desperate and dishonorable, while playing all three situations for laughs." The only positive review I could find was in a wrap-up piece from Roger Ebert, who didn't exactly rave, but had kind words for the actors and called the story "engrossing."

The film is due out Sept. 26 from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions Films, who'll be opening it in 400 theaters around the country. Lionsgate acquired North American rights for the film, which cost about $10 million, just before it went into production. With bad reviews and a buzz-kill subject matter (there's no way to describe the movie without intoning the dreaded word "Iraq"), it's hard to imagine much of a commercial future for the picture. So why do I take the time to defend it?

First off, Burger (who made "The Illusionist" in  2006) is a real talent, both as a writer and director. With co-writer Dirk Wittenborn, he deftly sketches three radically different characters, giving each one a real identity and a few distinctive quirks, allowing them to reinvent themselves in unexpected ways during the course of the story.

In the film, Robbins is a battered father figure, seemingly stable and secure, but with problems galore. Pena has the no-nonsense bearing of a real go-getter, but having been wounded in a very sensitive part of his anatomy, he's plagued by more insecurities than anyone. McAdams is the loneliest one of them all, but full of impulsive spunk, she triggers most of the great comic scenes, including one in which she drags the men to a mega-church, where she evokes sympathy for Pena's injury by blurting it out, in explicit detail, to the entire congregation. 

But there's an even more important reason to defend this film. It's just as much a comedy as a relationship film, and it's about damn time we got a chance to see soldiers who've come home from Iraq as flesh-and-blood human beings, full of both yearnings and high spirits, not just as cardboard stereotypes or pawns for filmmakers with an ideological agenda. There's no pro- or anti-Iraq war undercurrent here. In fact, if liberals want to understand why Sarah Palin is such a political sensation today, they should take a close look at McAdams' Colee Dunn character, who is a genuine American optimist, a chaste, loyal churchgoer who has taken a bullet in her leg for her country but never lost her feisty free spirit. The movie certainly has its flaws, but Burger has a great feel for something we rarely get to see enough of in our movies: real, down-home American individualism.

Photo of Rachel McAdams at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival from Warren Toda / EPA.