Movie adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels come with a built-in visual vocabulary: sunlight filtering through trees, cataclysmic weather, dogs quizzically reacting to dialogue, montages set to adult-contemporary pop songs and waterlogged love scenes. “The Lucky One,” starring Zac Efron as an ex-marine tracking down a woman he only knows from a photograph, hits all those notes and adds “death by treehouse” to the list in this preposterous, almost self-parodying romance.
Efron plays Logan Thibault, freshly home after three tours of duty in Iraq and haunted by his battlefield experiences, but he credits a photo he found during a difficult firefight with keeping him alive and serving as his good luck charm. Without a plan for his life and feeling the need to connect with the beautiful blond woman in the picture, he tracks her down based on other elements in the photo. Thanks to his canny Internet sleuthing, Logan deduces that she lives in rural Louisiana, so he walks with his German shepherd from Colorado to Cajun country — all the way.
Logan shows the photo around until it leads him to Beth (Taylor Schilling), a divorcee who runs a dog kennel with her grandmother (Blythe Danner) while raising 8-year-old Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart). Although she is hesitant and creeped out by Logan's staring and long silences, Beth hires him to clean the kennel and eventually warms to the stranger, but her vengeful ex-husband, Deputy Sheriff Keith Clayton (Jay R. Ferguson of “Mad Men”) is bent on sabotaging their budding relationship.
If all the music video-style montages suddenly evaporated from the final cut of “The Lucky One,” not much would be left, and because this is a Sparks adaptation, director Scott Hicks goes full-bore into the standard tropes of these movies. Reluctant heroine worn down by passion? Kissing in the rain? Adorable moppet? Check, check, check. Still, compared to previous Sparks films such as “Nights in Rodanthe” and “The Notebook,” “The Lucky One” feels like a cut-and-paste job of things that previously worked but now come across as rote and mandated by the brand.
This is a subtlety-free zone where sexual attraction is symbolized by soap — whether Beth and Logan are washing dishes, washing dogs or, in the climactic love scene, washing each other, “The Lucky One” is a series of drippy events culminating in an inevitably moist weather-related disaster. The emotional pivot points are so overwrought that they almost qualify as absurdist comedy.
And yet, Efron is clearly trying hard to transcend the emotional limitations of his character — when he is allowed to briefly break into a dance, it feels like a relief after all that repression. Danner is typically effortless as the wisecracking grandma, but the melodrama ramps into high gear when Schilling and Ferguson's characters squabble over divorce and custody issues. Schilling often plays too large with her emotions and Ferguson portrays the troubled ex-husband as a stock baddie and only finds some redemption toward the end.
The films based on Sparks' novels often rise or fall based on the skills of the actors and directors involved, and while there has yet to be a masterpiece, movies such as “The Notebook” have their faithful followers. But because it is often too overwrought or silly for the romance to be taken seriously, “The Lucky One” can't catch a break.
— George Lang
“The Lucky One”
Starring: Zac Efron, Blythe Danner, Taylor Schilling, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart.
(Sexuality and violence)