The surprise art-house hit of 2006, The Illusionist, gave Edward Norton his most romantic role, as a master magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna undermining the status quo with the power of mystery and sleight of hand.
That movie's director, Neil Burger, has returned to theaters with The Lucky Ones. It sounds like an about-face from plush period fantasy. It stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Pena and Tim Robbins as Iraq war soldiers who become friends when they join forces to face the confusions of the home front. (McAdams and Pena are on leave; Robbins thinks he's coming home for good.)
This movie has its own emotional sorcery. In a raw, humorous way, it grasps how hope and desperation spur magical thinking and, sometimes, real magic. It has none of the self-congratulatory air and ostentatious hand-wringing of films such as Rendition and In the Valley of Elah.
The question remains: Will it find the audience it deserves after movies like Elah, Rendition and Lions for Lambs flopped?
In a phone interview, Burger acknowledges with a laugh that he may have to pay for other filmmakers' sins - even though, he adds ruefully, "I probably started writing this movie before any of them." Burger says that whenever he screens The Lucky Ones "people really get it." A film like this depends on "how it's presented in reviews and other stories: whether they tell people it's a funny, heartbreaking, entertaining movie about America now and the characters just happen to be soldiers."
OK, how's this? The Lucky Ones, in equal parts a cockeyed Valentine and a wake-up call for contemporary America, will amuse and touch audiences of any political stripe.
For Burger, "The Iraq war, big as it is, is a symptom of larger cultural issues and changes in our country." The incongruity that fuels both farce and heartache lies in the distance between the soldiers' experiences and those of supporters or protesters - and citizens who don't do anything connected to the war.
Burger, who co-wrote the script with novelist Dirk Wittenborn, has a terrific ear for common catchphrases that can be resonant or hollow depending on the context, such as the often-heard "Thank you for your service." Friendship, not rhetoric, provides the depth in this movie. When the soliders end up driving together cross-country, they forge a connection as close as they would under fire.
The woman has no one she considers family except (she hopes) the parents of her late soldier boyfriend; she aims to win them over when she returns a family-heirloom guitar. (At least she thinks it's an heirloom.) The eldest (Robbins) is a family man who develops one overriding goal: acquiring enough money to send his son to Stanford. The most traditional soldier (Pena) has a fiancee, but he doesn't want to see her until he fixes a particular problem; a groin wound has rendered him impotent.
They all end up in Vegas for good reasons. McAdams' sweet-tough gal hopes to find her surrogate parents there. Robbins' hard-bitten parent (and shafted husband) aims to win the money for his son's tuition. Pena's scarred macho-man hopes the city's hard-working pros will cure his condition.
Their bond becomes a paradigm for what America should be all about. They're like a present-day version of the bomber crews in World War II films that always featured a WASP, a Jew, an Italian and an Irishman, except Burger and Wittenborn develop their relationships realistically and casually. McAdams is glorious as a woman who is as tough and scrappy as she is emotionally open. Robbins acts with rare subtlety as a man whose life turns upside-down just when he hopes to take it easy. Pena embodies the insecurity as well as the strength of an individualistic warrior.
Along the way, they interact with diverse Americans at bars and diners, a mega church and a house party. Burger cunningly particularizes each encounter, whether with happy hookers or haute bourgeoisie who are far more depraved. What gives these episodes cumulative impact is the group portrait that emerges of a well-meaning country in a state of drift.
"There used to be some collective identity," Burger says, "some sense of national purpose. We've always been a country of individualists, but underneath the individualism was a sound bedrock of shared purpose. Now, the more communal or national or collective part of our spirit is in tatters."
Or maybe it's just in a daze. When sorority girls mock the injured female soldier for her limp and the family man discovers how abruptly a contemporary wife and mother can take hold of her own destiny, these comrades heal each other's psychic wounds.
In good ways and bad, the U.S. of The Lucky Ones is a place where anything can happen at any time, including natural catastrophes. (The matter-of-fact inclusion of a tornado, panned by some, seems prescient to me.) Its images have the vividness of those low-budget movies that rediscovered real America in the 1960s and '70s, such as Jonathan Demme's Citizens Band.
"I wanted to take a snapshot of America that got the complexity of America," Burger says. "We all know about mega churches; they've been a powerful force for the last 25 years. And you could do them in such a way that they come off as a bunch of buffoons, or you could do them so they register very soulfully."
Burger covers both poles and every stop in between. For him, the core complication of the movie is epitomized by that omnipresent "Thank you for your service." Burger says, "There may be a little bit of 'Thank God it's not me' in there, but even if it's completely sincere, it's easier to thank people for their service rather than do service of your own." What Burger wants is an America that has Americans feeling, and saying, "We're all in the same boat together."
The Lucky Ones
(Roadside Attractions) Starring Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, Michael Pena. Directed by Neil Burger. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Time 113 minutes. *** ( 3 STARS)