ILLUSIONIST director Neil Burger and veteran SNL scribe-turned-novelist-turned-screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn (Fierce People) deliver an entertaining road movie with a topical point: The three passengers on this cross-country trip are U.S. soldiers who've just returned from Iraq.
Technically speaking, Sergeant Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins), Theodore "T.K." Poole (Michael Pena) and Private Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) are indeed lucky: Though all were injured during their separate tours of duty, they made it out of Iraq alive. Colee, who's returning to the U.S. on a 30 day leave, was wounded in the leg by an IED, her life saved by a fellow solider named Randy. Fred, a reservist going home for good, had three vertebrae crushed when a Porta John slipped off a forklift and landed on his back. And T.K., who, like Colee, is also due to return to Iraq in a month, was hit in the groin by a piece of shrapnel that's rendered him temporarily (he hopes) impotent. After meeting one another on their New York-bound flight, they bond over the realization that all connecting flights have been cancelled and agree to share the last available rental car. Fred is bound for St. Louis, where he lives with his wife (Molly Hagan) and their teenage son (Mark L. Young), while Colee and Poole are heading for Las Vegas, where Colee plans to return Randy's old -- and possibly very valuable -- acoustic guitar to his family and T.K. plans to avail himself of the services of professional sex workers in hopes of getting everything in full working order before he reunites with his fiancee. For T.K. the inability to perform sexually is a sign of failure, and there's no room for malfunction in an extremely focused life plan that sees him rising quickly through the military ranks and eventually entering public office. But as all three come to realize, life continued on without them while they were away and even their best laid plans are bound to go awry.
While remaining neutral on the subject of the war itself, Burger and Wittenborn capture a strong sense of the dislocation many soldiers feel upon returning home, from the odd looks and cruel treatment Colee gets from a group of snotty Indiana University girls to the rote and increasingly empty sounding "No, thank you" instead of "You're welcome" that each receives once people realize who they are and where they've been. The film isn't perfect -- it's hard to accept Colee as a woman with evangelical Christian leanings who also talks knowledgably about threeways and negotiates freebees with prostitutes, and too many people are too downright mean to be entirely believable -- but the dialogue is often sharp and funny and the performances nicely pitched. leave a comment --Ken Fox