“The key is listening to the signals and hearing what they’re saying.” Riding in a humvee in Iraq, U.S. troops are engrossed in their dreams of girls. Transported, briefly, they calculate and posture, sharing wisdom, imagining themselves elsewhere. “Stop talking about pussy!” one warns. “You’re going to get us killed—especially in this neighborhood.”
If you don’t know what happens next in The Lucky Ones, you need to get out more. As soon as the guys affirm that “listening to the signals” is key to success with girls, their lack of attention to what’s going on around them in this war zone has consequences. The assault on their convoy leads to bloody mayhem and a ticket home for TK (Michael Peña). Proud of his prowess with the ladies, his particular wound—denoted by a close-up of his bloody crotch—is especially devastating. He decides not to tell his fiancée what’s happened, but rather to wait “until it’s working again,” yet another heavy-handed indication of what’s to come. That is, TK and his fellow troops maintain hope against hope that their lives and world will, at some point, be “working again.”
As TK heads home, he’s aligned with a couple of other soldiers, both damaged and hopeful in their own ways. A system breakdown at JFK leads him to join up with Colee (Rachel McAdams) and Cheever (Tim Robbins): they rent a car and take off, planning to deposit each at his or her preferred destination, all more or less headed west, to Missouri and then Las Vegas. The direction is key, for the open skies and broad plains they eventually find serve as metaphor for the freedom and faith they may have lost during their tours. Earnestly thanked for their service by rental car clerks and garage mechanics (for of course, they have car troubles), the troops marvel at the complacency and ignorance of the world apart from the war: how is it that these citizens can be so unaware of what’s going on, even as they voice support?
The wars in the Middle East hang over The Lucky Ones like high cloud cover, coloring each event during the road trip, no matter how banal. If it’s not a surprise for you that Cheever finds his home planet rotating in a different rhythm and speed than when he left, he is surely undone by the discoveries that his wife (Molly Hagan) has “moved on” in his absence (“I’m happy being alone”) and his son Scott (Mark L. Young) has been accepted to Stanford but needs tuition commitment within days to make his dream possible. TK’s efforts to keep his “trouble” secret are doomed to failure, but you can anticipate that his new friends will help him deal with the trauma. And Colee too will be disappointed, her resilience and optimism no match for the collapse of the battlefield fictions she’s absorbed as part of her homecoming mythology.
It’s no accident that these revelations occur in and around Vegas, where desires are transformed by commercial interests, where culture and economy are plainly conjoined. As a stage for debates about war, manhood, and morality, the overplotted and hyper-constructed oasis seems both absurd and perfect. TK’s struggle to redefine masculinity—in the abstract and for himself—begins as he realizes that his long-held notions are undermined (“A man’s gotta be indispensible,” he says, “He’s gotta have skills,” like his own faith in his “leadership”).
Cheever has his own barometer for manhood, focused for the time being through money, that is, the $20,000 tuition he needs in order to re-prove himself to Scott. As he pursues this end, the film underlines its thematic interests in gambling, and each of the three takes risks for the others. And even if TK, Cheever, and Colee don’t see it, the movie ensures that you do see the connection between gambling and their military service—whether they understand their choices as voluntary or not. At times, The Lucky Ones’ emphasis on risk and luck is overbearing. The plot is reduced in these moments to episodes—a sudden tornado, an incredible car accident, and a few convenient encounters—all producing some not-so-believable shifts in perspectives and aspirations. And can you guess which two of the three travelers develop romantic feelings for each other?
All this is not to say that the film doesn’t provide insights and pleasures of its own sort. The war is never quite absent from these troops’ lives, much as they work to free themselves of its influence, the limits it imposes on their expectations or the inevitable disenchantment its participants come to feel. In the end, the gamble can only lead to loss, but as The Lucky Ones suggests, the lessons worth learning have to do with coping and rebuilding, and not “doubling down,” as the currently popular phrasing has it.