The Lucky Ones (2008)

★★★

The Lucky Ones PosterDirector: Neil Burger

Release Date: September 26th, 2008 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; War

Starring: Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, Michael Peña

In the upcoming season of True Detective, Rachel McAdams will play a prickly, stoical police sheriff (or if you’re reading this after August she already has, and rather brilliantly too, right?!). That sounds like quite the departure from her character in The Lucky Ones — a soldier, tough without doubt, but whose veins pulse with good-natured naivety. Her volcanic charm is the type that could turn a long road trip into a really, really long road trip. Not here though. Not on McAdams’ watch.

She is Private first class Colee Dunn, joined on a cross country excursion by Sergeant first class Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins) and Staff sergeant T.K. Poole (Michael Peña). The trio meet at JFK airport having just finished their respective tours of duty, and opt to collectively hire a car since flights home are in short supply. What follows is a familiar voyage down the road movie genre, with periodic stops at comedic junctions and soul searching stations.

What this is not, is a war movie. The film has been criticised for not sufficiently addressing the complex issues of battle — but it simply isn’t a war movie. Certainly, the three main characters with whom we spent time are soldiers on leave, but that doesn’t mean the film has to ruminate about the war they’re presently separated from. Colee and company discuss it, sure. They feel the weight of its heavy baggage at times. But hey, maybe they’re just people. Two normal guys and one normal girl, each trying to reacclimatise to the real world. Struggling, often comically, sometimes painfully.

T.K. is the brash macho-type who subdues authenticity. We first see him inside a tank spouting tasteless jibes about women, before debris from an explosion renders him impotent. His lack of functionality becomes a recurring joke that eventually finds resolution in the film’s worst scene — a poorly executed tornado forces Colee and T.K. into a claustrophobic drain pipe, and it’s really cringe-worthy. Peña undercuts most of the unlikeable traits often attributed to those “macho-types” by delivering a fairly nuanced performance. At one point his character awakens suddenly in the middle of the night, clearly still troubled by the blast, and can only mutter a, “You know… sorry,” when questioned by Colee.

She is the most engaging of the three. McAdams has real presence, lighting up the screen every time she appears. Colee is the buffer between humour and emotion, her wide-eyed lack of cynicism both refreshingly authentic and solemnly disheartening. “That girl’s living in a dream world,” T.K. asserts, and it’s true. She lugs around the guitar of her close friend Randy who died on duty, aiming to return the instrument to his family in Las Vegas. Though Colee has never met them, she is driven by the hope that they’ll let her stay. She exudes so much positivity that we start to buy into her crazy plan. It’s the potential prize at the end of the rainbow, a treasure that differs from the materialistic hoards prevalent in other road trip movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Rat Race.

Quite the opposite is Tim Robbins’ Fred, or Cheaver, since he is the elder statesman of the group. A modest guy looking to get away from active combat, Cheaver rolls into family despair near the beginning of the journey. He is definitely the unluckiest — though the other two aren’t exactly wearing rabbit’s feet — and Robbins succinctly captures this turmoil. There are similarities to be drawn with Sam Jaeger’s Take Me Home as far as character relationships go, where petty squabbles inevitably evolve into admiration and understanding.

That film’s aimless quality is also apparent — the men constantly say they “don’t have time” to indulge Colee’s sight-seeing desires, but they’re not actually going anywhere. In a way they have all the time in the world, but the guys are too obsessed with achieving an end goal that probably doesn’t actually exist. Though their plot construction could be questioned, director Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) and co-writer Dirk Wittenborn’s character creation is effective. Just like in the army, the trio grow to rely upon each other — monetarily, emotionally, and intellectually — a conclusion arrived at with sincerity.

To the film’s credit it doesn’t spend two hours achingly debating the woes war. However, it opts not to ignore the pitfalls either. America becomes part of a clinical world that the army-goers aren’t used to (“You’re at a disadvantage if you don’t master your computer skills”). Bystanders and acquaintances constantly thank them for their efforts abroad, but it’s all platitudinal. Yet it doesn’t feel like The Lucky Ones is trying to emulate the rich verve of something like a Sideways. When the movie threatens too much seriousness it quickly scrambles back under its light-hearted comfort blanket, embodied in a scene where life reflections are interrupted by a penis balloon joke.

Nibbles of narrative stupidity are glibly accepted as a given by the screenwriters. A customer service employee grants the group a car due to their army credentials, even though the only vehicle remaining belongs to the employee’s airport boss. Problems that arise often bear very simple solutions, these problems too easily erected in the first place (Cheaver’s son gets accepted into Stanford University but needs to cough up $20,000 in tuition fees). The film chooses to manoeuvre its way around simple answers through comedy: Randy’s guitar would solve Cheaver’s monetary problems, but Colee amusingly decides to cry rather than oblige.

Though the actual trip part of The Lucky Ones does run into a few roadblocks — it’s not as funny as it should be, nor as emotionally-involving — the characters behind the wheel are wholly accommodating. Besides, who doesn’t want to watch a movie where Rachel McAdams plays an impulsive Southerner with more charm in one glance than a machine gun has bullets?

The Lucky Ones - McAdams & Pena

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions

Nebraska (2013)

★★★★

Director: Alexander Payne

Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (UK); January 24th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Drama

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb

Alexander Payne truly has a knack for relaying the road story on screen. You need more than an echelon of soul, characters whose individual hearts collectively beat in time with the narrative, and a narrative that quips comically, evolves raucously and affirms genuinely. In Sideways, he created a cinematic Everest, a pinnacle that will require something pretty spectacular to reach. And although Nebraska — Payne’s latest venture into the genre that sees characters finding their way around town before finding themselves — doesn’t quite reach the Sideways summit, it’s still a comforting, humorous and reminiscing ride.

Absolutely dead-cert he’s stumbled upon a one million dollar sweepstakes letter, getting to Lincoln, Nebraska is the first, last and only thing on Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) torpedoing mind. If it weren’t for highway patrol, he’d have walked there. His end goal momentarily scuppered by the confines of a police station and a sigh-fully approaching son, Woody mentally prepares a case for action. Because in his eyes, there’s a mound of cash crying out to him at the end of a Nebraskan road. Son David (Will Forte) believes the letter is a scam, and initially denounces Woody’s nonsensical intentions. However, after a number of persistence-driven incidents, David agrees to chauffeur his father towards the elder’s prescribed destination; probably not out of curiosity, rather, in order to spend time with his ageing old man.

From its elegant cinematography to a perfectly poised story, Nebraska evokes a sense of accomplishment and craftsmanship. Of course, the road-trip mantra will always centre on character study, and it’s no different here. However to not acknowledge the technical prowess on display would be doing the film a disservice. The black-and-white scape works both as a visual appeasement and as a narrative cog, as it represents not only the blunt tone, but also Woody’s depreciating mind and somewhat selfish outlook. In composing a curtain of sound, Mark Orton infuses proceedings with a Wild West twang, harking connotations of the primitive western ‘every man for themselves’ adage. Technically, the film is better than proficient. It is wholly engaging.

Having communicated the industrial superlatives, I ought to focus on the film as a depiction of characters, because without doubt Nebraska is about people and family and relationships. Those, and the subsequent pile of complex baggage associated with such humanistic tendencies. Although Woody isn’t the most amiable chap — his monetary determination prevails above all else — the viewer still sympathises with him to the point where you are subliminally rooting for the lead to walk away with a heap of cash, if only to see him smile. Bruce Dern embodies the retired Woody in all his stout manliness (“I served my country, I paid my taxes”), a portrayal that in many other hands would sway towards generic, yet Dern emits realism. But he’s also frail and his exuberance is quenched before it really gets going, demanding many a refuelling tavern trip.

Will Forte is the caring son David, who stands by his father through thick and thin. Forte must act as a sufficient bumper against all of Woody’s grouchy impulses, a challenging task if there ever was. The duo are essentially a two-man act, strained as a pairing but valiant against any external threat (much like Miles and Jack in Sideways). Enter June Squibb as mother Kate, the experienced firecracker of the family, whose hilarious opening statement sets the tone for her appearance: “You dumb cluck!” The withered status of Kate and Woody’s relationship is prevalent throughout, but it’s a natural abrasion brought on through years of being together, rather than simply a clash of personalities. Squibb impeccably channels her character’s outspoken demeanour into one of protection over Woody.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay is terrific, and Alexander Payne coats an affirming lesson with crude comedy. As father and son settle down at a family gathering alongside a ramshackle troupe of wordless Woodys and ditsy Davids, we watch that familiar social awkwardness at its most humorous. Cousins Cole and Bart insist on mundane car conversations, but at least someone is trying to cover over the cracks of silence. “Cole here did some jail”… maybe silence was the way to go after all. And it’s that tonal take-no-prisoners style that the film thrives on. Yet, there is a dramatic strand running throughout, one that takes its subject matter seriously. Woody is old. His senses are dwindling; he walks along motorways and unwittingly unveils his perceived monetary gain to strangers and enemies. This melancholic exercise on advancing years and losing oneself is relatable — everybody gets old, and many of us have spent time with elderly loved ones. Whilst Woody’s millionaire claims are momentarily amusing, they’re also sad in reflection as we see judgement fail him. At one point, you question Woody’s actual intentions: to chase a false dream, or to live and relive a reminiscent present? For David, the road-trip is a touching venture of discovery about the wholesome life endured by his father, a man you don’t get the impression David knows all that well, despite their familial ties.

Nebraska is another successful excursion for its director. Suitable in its simplicity and subtle in its sensitivity, the film is spearheaded by three admirably relatable performances. At the end of it all, Payne reflects on trust, on bonding, and on seizing the moment. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is, to quote Woody himself, “Pretty good”.

Trouble with the Curve (2012)

★★★★

Director: Robert Lorenz

Release Date: September 21st, 2012 (US); November 30th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Sport

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake

Whereas Bennett Miller’s Moneyball laid out the intricacies of baseball and created an engrossing film about the sport for people who don’t know the sport, Trouble with the Curve sees baseball solely as a starting point; as the spark that will go on to ignite a splendid tale of relationships, trust and stubbornness. The cast is excellent and each bring something different to the field, but it’s simplicity that allows Trouble with the Curve to thrive. The low-key approach is very laissez-faire, almost as if the film isn’t striving to make that home-run. Only, it just about gets there anyway.

Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood) is an elderly scout who has plied his trade at the Atlanta Braves for decades. He has devoted his life to baseball and Gus’ ageing mind is always wandering in search for the next bat. Eyes failing him (a scout’s nightmare) and given one final chance to unearth a diamond, Gus finds himself on the road with his daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) whose success in law suggests more than just strength and independence, as it instead covers up the cracks dealt in a life without her father.

Not an awful lot happens in Trouble with the Curve, but it’s exactly that deficiency in over-doing things that gives the film its mellow charm and warmth. Having its toes dipped in the sports genre, a danger certainly exists where the attraction of glorifying situations and entering an all-too-familiar schmaltz territory is never far off, but director Robert Lorenz ensures sappiness is kept to an absolute minimum, meaning that when it does rear its mushy head, you are obliged to forgive. In a film about overcoming obstacles, it’s definitely more fitting to have some puddles of slush rather than sheets of uncompromising ice.

At the heart of the film are two performances, both of which provide the elevation needed for Trouble with the Curve to stand out from the pack. Clint Eastwood is gravelly, rustic, abrasive, croaky and a whole manner of other blemishes associated with an elderly man who has seen his best years, and who probably wont see much more of the sport he loves and lives. Gus Lobel’s colleagues are often seen exclaiming, “He may be ready for pasture,” “Game’s changed,” and “New blood”, and although he doesn’t hear these put-downs in the open, Eastwood’s defiant yet deep-down defeated demeanour tells you all you need to know about his character’s own perception of a bleak future.

Along, then, comes the simply delightful Amy Adams, who bursts with soul as she injects life into both Eastwood and the film. Although a cagey lawyer-type in the beginning, her relationship with Eastwood develops into an absorbing one: sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but always worth its weight in screen time. Gus and Mickey are far too stubborn to admit defeat (in their eyes, at least) and the film plays with this idea of withholding from loved ones until it might be too late. Mickey is always coiled up in work; her aspirations of getting a promotion in an industry she only entered to please her father are shallow, as he is never there to see her thrive anyway (“Everything’s okay as long we don’t talk”). Gus is distant, embroiled in baseball and relentlessly stutters when attempting to unveil feelings and sentiment towards his daughter. Justin Timberlake portrays former player Johnny Flanagan, someone who was apprehensive in the past about discussing the arm injury that prematurely ended his playing career. Timberlake deserves recognition for his charismatic contribution too, and together the three actors develop brilliant chemistry which ultimately drives the film and sharpens its principals.

In its lack of narrative extravagance, Trouble with the Curve does run the risk of inducing monotony, however the aforementioned engaging characters should be enough to guide you through until the end. Although not as funny as other road-trip films (which it essentially is) there are undoubtedly moments of comedy, a handful of which tread the black humour realm. This is Eastwood’s first non-self-directed acting expedition since a Casper cameo in 1995, and one or two playful sniggers towards age and losing touch with reality are on show — the whole ‘loss of sight’ element might even be a nod towards Eastwood’s real life front-of-camera career wind down.

It is all about the people involved, and thankfully the people involved are excellent company — there are even fun roles for Matthew Lillard and John Goodman, who has been pried from the Coen Brothers’ grip in order to film this. Purity is pivotal throughout Trouble with the Curve; heck, maybe a riskier, more diverse plot would’ve offered surprise and ingenuity. That’s wishful thinking though and, to be honest, probably a disservice to the brilliant effort on show from those involved.

Anyway, it is breakfast time… where’s my pizza?