.The Worst Years of Our Lives

Iraq vets wish they'd never come home in The Lucky Ones. And the sex addict in Choke won't take a hint and leave.

So far, the best movies about our nation’s current misadventure in Iraq have been documentaries. Narrative films have tried, but none has quite captured the irony, the futility, the waste of that seemingly endless war the way the docs have: No End in Sight, Iraq in Fragments, Gunner Palace, Taxi to the Dark Side, Fahrenheit 9/11, etc. It’s as if the elusive “inner truth” about the Iraq war is too difficult to get at dramatically. Or perhaps it’s just that open, unvarnished polemic — the tool most often used by skeptical documentarians investigating this questionable conflict — is the only real tonic for the sandstorm of official deception that has blown continually since the US invaded that country in 2003.

Director Neil Burger is willing to give it a try anyway in the new drama The Lucky Ones, a story of three burnt-out GIs on leave in the States after combat duty in Iraq and their bumpy trip across the once familiar, now completely strange American landscape. His ace in the hole is Tim Robbins, the liberal activist and actor who still clings to a shred of grunt cred left over from his roles as baseball players, cops, and robbers. Robbins can do “crestfallen” as well as anyone in Hollywood, but what few revelations The Lucky Ones doles out revolve more around Robbins’ cast mates, Rachel McAdams and Michael Peña. Their characters sneak up on us the way Robbins’ weary, middle-aged sergeant Cheever could never do.

When army-enlisted personnel Cheever, Colee (McAdams), and TK (Peña) first run into each other in the airport trying to get military standby rides back home, they discover they’ve been in the same unit all along but never knew each other. Similar ironies pop up for the next two hours. All three are recovering from wounds — Cheever uses a rubber doughnut to sit down, Colee walks with a limp, and TK is embarrassed to admit that his penis was blown off by an IED. Or nearly blown off. The punch line is it doesn’t work anymore and he has to break the news to his fiancée.

A couple of coincidences later, the all-too-likely trio is in a rent-a-car en route to St. Louis and points West. Cheever needs to reunite with his wife and son; TK’s plan is to go to Vegas and somehow get a hooker to “cure” him (they don’t have hookers in New York?); and Colee, the most defensive of the group by nature, wants the other two to know she’s en route to deliver a guitar to the parents of the dead soldier who entrusted it to her — it’s a rare Martin worth $22,000. Their real, unstated missions, ploddingly outlined by co-screenwriters Burger (The Illusionist) and Dirk Wittenborn, are more in the nature of relocating their souls and finding some elusive peace of mind, a tough proposition in 2008 Homeland America.

Film entertainments have used variations on the bittersweet-soldiers’-homecoming device since the days of silents. We can no longer relate to the emotional territory of, say, the returning WWII veterans in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives because that America no longer exists — something already laboriously pointed out in In the Valley of Elah. Instead, the filmmakers have acknowledged Hal Ashby’s Vietnam-war-era buddy movie The Last Detail as their inspiration. That would be fine, except that 1) The Lucky Ones has very little of the rowdy humor of Ashby’s three-sailors-on-a-binge road trip (even the obligatory bar fight is grim and pathetic), and 2) it doesn’t have anyone like Jack Nicholson’s Bad Ass Buddusky — Robbins seems a bit too old for his part as it is. We could further add that there’s no Robert Towne behind the screenplay, but that’s obvious from the get-go.

McAdams (Red Eye, Wedding Crashers) shares Colee’s neediness with her buddies with just the right touch of combativeness, and as TK’s true story comes out, Peña (Babel, World Trade Center) makes him the only one of the trio we’d want to actually hang out with. Robbins’ Cheever is serviceable but essentially uninteresting, except as a link between the awful America of today and the not-quite-so-hopeless place it was when sarge first enlisted. Nobody back home really wants these three lonely people, and based on what The Lucky Ones shows us, they’re better off that way. At least they’ve got each other.

Ho hum, another Chuck Palahniuk adaptation, Choke. When is somebody going to blow the whistle on this fraud? If you loved Fight Club, probably no one will be able to dissuade you from buying a ticket for this desperately unfunny, “anti-heroic” yarn about a sex addict and his unhappy emotional state. It’s cheaper than therapy, and you can get popcorn.

After his fine work in Snow Angels and The Assassination of Jesse James, it seemed Sam Rockwell had finally gotten the taste of dreck like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy out of his mouth. What a disappointment it must have been to find himself cast as Victor Mancini, a typical Palahniuk protagonist if ever there was one. Neurotic sex and love addict Victor, who toils as a Williamsburg-style historical theme park re-enactor during the day (silly costume) and boffs willing (they’re always willing) females at all hours, suffers from a host of family issues. Never knew his father, spent a rootless youth eating junk food on picnic benches in the freezing cold with his crazy mother, and now is obliged to care for that mom, Ida (Anjelica Huston), as she slips into senile dementia in a nursing home. No wonder Victor is a compulsive shtupper, or that he habitually pulls a “Heimlich scam” whereby he goes into a restaurant, fakes choking, then luxuriates in the saving embrace of a stranger, any stranger, man or woman. Poor Victor.

Huston is redundant in the sort of role she perfected long ago for Wes Anderson. Kelly Macdonald, the Scots native actor who lent the perfect air of bewilderment to No Country for Old Men, does what she can with the part of Victor’s most interesting bed buddy, Paige, while Brad William Henke’s bulky Denny, Victor’s workmate at the “village,” may be the best written role in the film, such as it is. The therapeutic fallacy refuses to die. Director Clark Gregg uses far too many shots of people shoving food into their gobs. And yes, that’s poor Joel Grey as one of the sex addicts in the support group. We’ll let the Sacred Foreskin of Jesus flap in the breeze alone, and allow this sad little premature ejaculation of a movie to choke on its own insufficiencies.


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