Many films have sought to portray the terrible damage inflicted by war against a soldier's mental and physical health, but The Lucky Ones takes this concept to new depths by depicting a trio of Army personnel who have been messed up only in amusing, sitcom-y ways. It has three strangers with nothing in common but their uniforms driving cross-country to get everyone home, and if that sounds like an ill-conceived cross between Stop-Loss and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, you're right on the money. Especially on the "ill-conceived" part.
Sgt. T.K. Poole (Michael Peña) is a horny young man who's been rendered impotent -- hilarious! -- by shrapnel from an IED. He can't bear to tell his fiancee, though, because without sex, "we got nothing to talk about." Pvt. Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) is taking a guitar that belonged to her boyfriend, who was killed in action, to his family in Las Vegas, deluding herself into thinking they'll take her into their home, too, as she has no family of her own. T.K. and Colee are on 30-day leaves; Sgt. Fred Cheever (Tim Robbins), a career Army man from St. Louis, is heading home for good, having injured his back in combat. Well, OK, a porta-potty fell on him. But still, he's retiring.
A blackout at JFK Airport suspends all flights indefinitely, so Cheever opts to rent a car and drive to Missouri. T.K. and Colee tag along, figuring they'll fly out of St. Louis, but the three wind up sticking together after T.K. and Colee witness Cheever's home life falling apart the very minute he arrives. Don't worry if that sounds sad -- the film's jaunty, light musical score, played in nearly every scene, serves to keep you feeling upbeat.
What ensues is a series of contrived, unimaginative comic and serio-comic scenarios. Cheever needs $20,000 to send his son to college -- and whaddaya know, that guitar of Colee's, having once belonged to Elvis, might fetch just that much at auction! The three stumble upon a church service in the Midwest, leaving the devout Colee to have the pastor pray vocally for T.K.'s wounded private parts. They picnic in the Rocky Mountains and happen to encounter a group of hookers in a neighboring campground, one of whom is more than willing to help T.K. overcome his problem.
Some of this is occasionally funny enough to induce a chuckle, mostly because of McAdams' naive exuberance and Robbins' general excellence as an actor. An aw-shucks Midwestern Army man might seem like an odd fit for the famously liberal Robbins, but he pulls it off just fine. (Besides, remember him in The Hudsucker Proxy?) And while T.K. isn't as memorable a character as the other two, Peña is a likable, unassuming actor.
But for the most part, the film is astonishingly wrong-headed. Directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist) and written by him and Dirk Wittenborn (Fierce People), its light tone is at odds with the characters' serious problems, and its implausible story conflicts with the vein of realism that lies beneath it. The movie wants us to remember that there really is a war, and that the Army really is having trouble recruiting new soldiers. The thing is, we do remember -- and we know those soldiers deserve a better tribute than this trite, phony dreck.