Can a movie about returning soldiers be funny? The Lucky Ones is a road movie that looks at the disconnect between three soldiers on leave and the country they come home to. It is funny... also heartbreaking and actually less about the war than about America now -- a snapshot of the changing American character and landscape. The three soldiers (played by Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, and Michael Pena) just want to have a good time, find their families, be normal. Instead they find themselves strangers in their own land.
More than one real soldier I spoke to told me that, on returning, they preferred "Welcome home" to "Thank you for your service" because they felt that people, by saying "Thank you," were somehow absolving themselves of their own lack of service. The gratitude, however well-intentioned, often felt empty to these soldiers. But now "Welcome home" takes on a whole new meaning: when the soldiers shipped out the economy was booming, now they come home to an economic disaster.
As a filmmaker, I wonder if anyone wants to think about these issues, to see them explored on screen. In the last two weeks I've shown the movie a dozen times for audiences of 200 to 2000 people... and I've been pleasantly surprised -- they seem to get the mix of absurdity and tragedy. Critics, on the other hand, are having a tougher time (there's a Los Angeles Times article that discusses this.)
So how can the movie be funny and still deal with these issues? My feeling is humor may be the only way to deal with them. The audience is so resistant to painful subjects, they've put up such a wall, that the humor becomes the Trojan horse that gets through the wall. Laughter can be an act of rebellion, empowerment -- it has a unique ability to heal the human spirit, and it also allows certain truths to land with more impact. In this movie the laughter brings people's emotions to the surface, shakes them up, knocks the scab off the wound, so when more serious moments occur they become that much more heartbreaking and emotional. Maybe we begin to see more clearly after that.
Sometimes the humor is subtle, sometimes outrageous. The characters have absurd encounters because their situation is ultimately absurd, philosophically absurd. They try to find connection, meaning for their lives in a society that is indifferent to their plight. They make appeals to God -- there are even acts of God -- but none of it can change their situation. They're in an existential limbo.
When we began writing the screenplay, my co-writer Dirk Wittenborn said to me, "Iraq should just be a flea bite for America. But if you're not careful, a flea bite can get infected and kill you." Well, we're not dead yet but we certainly need some national healing. Maybe humor helps in this healing, maybe it allows us to look at unpleasant truths, to finally face reality. That's what the three characters in the movie do -- face their reality -- and I think they embody what's best about America. Each of them, though highly flawed, has a basic goodness, a real human decency. And, like America, an ability to see their mistakes, to learn from them, and to change.