This pleasant but split-personality film tries to marry comedy with tragedy, but doesn't connect in either genre. Three strangers -- each a wounded soldier from the Iraq war -- are on the same flight from Germany to New York. But when they arrive at JFK International, all connecting flights have been cancelled because of a blackout.
One of the soldiers, a capable, middle-aged fellow named Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins), is so desperate to see his wife that he rents a minivan to drive all the way to St. Louis.
The other two, the much younger Colee (Rachel McAdams) and T.K. (Michael Peña), both happen to be headed for Las Vegas, but they're so anxious to escape the crowded airport they decide to join Cheaver. Cue the trappings of the all-American road movie: A comfy rental van is soon carrying these strangers across the American interior; they pass over the prairies, the hills and, more often, the manufactured landscapes of suburbia. Of course, the soldiers become fast friends. But as they encounter other Americans, it becomes painfully obvious that they don't comfortably belong to these people.
The three happen upon a party where the guests are swapping opinions on the war. When asked how things are going "over there," Cheaver shrugs and replies: "We're just trying to stay alive." While folks on the home front can enjoy the extravagance of strong opinions, these physically and emotionally bruised soldiers seem to be scraping the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. This is where the story gets interesting.
But the film is downright bullheaded in its refusal to wallow. Director and co-writer Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") aims for a subtle statement about the hollowness of suburbia and American consumer culture. But a sloppily composed shot of Cheaver crying in the minivan is about as artful as it gets. Instead, the film has the sparkly aesthetics of an upbeat romantic comedy.
The score is downright wacky. At times, a whimsical piano drives the van through Midwestern landscapes; at other times, the music sounds like synthesized folk. These zany tunes assert that the film doesn't take its grim subject matter too seriously.
Characters are revealed in slow, sympathetic ways: T.K.'s gruff exterior peels away to reveal a terrified, insecure core; Colee has a creepy tendency to disclose too much personal information, but we come to understand that she must talk in order to heal.
However, the likable characters are always being socked with cheesy dialogue. For example, when confronted with even minor mishaps, Colee is always deadpanning: "I wish I had my weapon."
It's an admirable, unobjectionable effort, but the solemn subject of damaged soldiers doesn't hold together with the filmmaker's flippant ingredients. Its lack of emotional thrust doesn't inspire the viewer to feel one way or another.