' Cinema Romantico: The Lucky Ones

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Lucky Ones

Often you will ask a person who has just seen a movie whether or not he or she liked it and they will reply, "Well, (so-and-so) was good" or "The acting was good." Translation: the movie itself wasn't so good. But can this really be the case? How can the acting be considered good when the movie isn't? If you want to know how it can be I direct you at once to Neil Burger's "The Lucky Ones". Three soldiers return home from Iraq, two on leave and one for good, and wind up on a road trip to Vegas. It's a standard movie of the genre with three very warm, very real performances courtesy of Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Pena that make it very much worthwile.

Cheaver (Robbins), saddled with a bad back, is returning to his wife and son in St. Louis. Colee (McAdams), who walks with a severe limp after being wounded, is on her way to Las Vegas where she will return a priceless guitar to the parents of a friend she made in Iraq. T.K., his - how shall I put this delicately? - "junk" on the fritz after also being wounded in combat, is also on his way to the City With The Strip, where he hopes to meet up with his fiance.

Once they have landed at the New York airport they find that, of course, there has just been a blackout grounding all flights and so, naturally, the trio rents a car together and strikes out for St. Louis where Colee and T.K. can catch a flight to Vegas but, inevitably, once they arrive it turns out Cheaver's wife, not having seen him for two years, wants a divorce and, wouldn't you know it, his son has been accepted to Stanford except he needs another $20,000 to attend which, obviously, Cheaver doesn't have unless, you guessed it, he goes to Vegas with the others and hits a craps table and....but I could go on and on, providing plot spoiler upon plot spoiler.

It's the Road Trip Movie modus operandi, after all. Happenstances lining up like building blocks. If a character says, "I have to go to the bathroom" don't presume to believe such a detour will involve nothing beyond going to the bathroom. At one point, a character's crucial personal crisis is resolved when (I'm not making this up) a tornado literally drops from the sky. I mean, I'm all for writers thinking outside the box but that's not just getting out of the box. That's getting out of the box and leaving it in the next county. Perhaps the writer needed to be put back in the box after that one. But regardless of what the screenplay may have them do our trio of actors, and the writer/director, has a clear idea of who these three characters are.

As Cheaver, Robbins is restrained, his emotions kept in check, but also good-hearted. He's quiet, but not brooding. His scene at home with his wife (done without music) as he slowly comes to see what is about to happen is lifelike in every way, and the polar opposite of most of the rest of the film. One may be tempted to label him a father figure but observe the sequence where a stopover at a roadside bar - surprise! - goes awry. Cheaver's reaction, though, is not to harangue the person responsible with proclamations such as "What were you thinking?" or "That's not how you should act!" but to simply do his duty - get the person away, laugh about it, and feel relief. They're all in it together.

Ever since Rachel McAdams (as far as I'm concerned) upstaged everyone else in "Wedding Crashers", I believed she was a gifted performer just waiting for some weightier roles to come along. There will still be better roles to come but she re-proves her chops in this one. Genuine, polite to a fault, curious, (perhaps the most affecting scene in the film is a "throwaway" moment in which she scans drawers in a guest room) she talks and talks and talks and asks questions and questions and more questions and sincerely wants to help and brought to mind an Oscar-nominated performance from Amy Adams in "Junebug" - endless words used to mask a much deeper sadness. She can flip to anger on a dime, and does on a couple occassions, and you sense she had a rotten childhood without the screenplay ever saying it - which is to say the actress herself is entirely responsible for conveying her own backstory. That's talent.

Pena's T.K.? He's the sort of the guy who always ready (and probably excited) to make a plan. After Cheaver's wife asks for the divorce it is T.K. who instantly dives into advising Cheaver, "This is what you need to do." Hence, when asked he brands himself a "leader". His whole plight is a man's man having his manhood taken away and it's ashame the movie had to resort to such wretched symbolism to clue us into this but even if the screenplay hadn't done so we still would have figured it out via Pena.

In the end I found myself sort of rooting for a couple more schlocky plot contrivances. I wouldn't have minded spending a bit more time in the company of this trio.

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