Ignore the cell phones and chain restaurants, and it's easy to envision The Lucky Ones, an earnest indie drama about the long, lingering shadow of the Iraq War, as a shambling, rambling 1973 road movie about Vietnam with, say, Bruce Dern, Tuesday Weld, and John Cazale in the roles played by Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Peña. Lucky hearkens back to the low-key, socially conscious American cinema of the '70s as wholeheartedly as Grindhouse revisited the lurid sleaze of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's misspent youth, but without a hint of self-consciousness or irony.
Robbins plays a husband and father whose tour of duty in Iraq ended after an unfortunate accident with a toilet. Due to travel snafus, Robbins ends up sharing a vehicle and a lot more with two fellow soldiers on leave: a quirky, limping dreamer (McAdams) and an ambitious striver (Peña). Robbins' homecoming takes a sour turn when his wife requests a divorce, so the mismatched trio takes to the road to pursue questionable schemes.
Lucky combines three of the most ubiquitous indie-film premises of the past 30 years. It's a film about strangers who become friends over the course of an eventful, incident-packed road trip. It's a comedy-drama about three lost souls who unite to form a loving surrogate family. Lastly, it's a message movie about the hardships soldiers face upon returning home to a world that's become foreign to them. So in its own doggedly non-commercial way, Lucky is clichéd and formulaic. Yet it has its shaggy charms, especially for '70s-fixated viewers. McAdams plays a character who blurs the line between charmingly naïve and mentally challenged; in the hands of Juliette Lewis, this woman-child would be insufferable, but McAdams makes her appealing and sweet, if never particularly believable, especially since she totes around a valuable acoustic guitar that's half clumsy symbolism, half cheesy plot point. Like its lead characters, Lucky is wounded, lost, and impractical, but it has a messy, winning humanity and an agreeably leisurely pace that almost redeems it.