Film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels are like the female equivalent to the testosterone-fueled carnage of the Transformers movies and their many clones. There’s a core group of young men that go to theaters solely to gorge on numbing special effects junk food—along the lines of Michael Bay’s deliriously pointless, noisily mechanized and blindingly fiery spectacles—and drool ferverishly at the Maxim centerfold eye-candy of Megan Fox or Rosie Huntington Whitely. Their wives or girlfriends, on the other hand, get their kicks from the three-hankie melodrama of Sparks’ mawkishly mishandled and jejune tearjerkers that, transplanted to the screen, are little more than sappy cardboard romances spiced up with their own brand of pinup-boy eye-candy, provided by teenybopper favorites like Channing Tatum and Liam Hemsworth.
In The Lucky One, former Disney Channel heartthrob Zach Efron tries to navigate the tricky leap into serious actor territory, but really just joins the former ranks of chiseled meathead lover-boys. As another syrupy Sparks adaptation, the movie’s look is as kitsch-painterly—with images of billowy red mists, sunsets over sparkly water bodies, and glorious rays peaking through Southern-sumptuous vegetation—as its story is bird-brained and bloodless. But The Lucky One, at the very least, has a premise worth jumping off from, even if its subsequent plot progression is more of a descent than ascent in quality.
Efron plays Logan, a Marine in Iraq who ventures away from his unit only momentarily to pick up a wallet-sized picture of an anonymous lovely blond lying amid the rubble of Baghdad. A mortar lands on the exact spot he previously stood, sending dumpsters full of dirt and a number of his fellow Jarheads sky-high. Logan is eventually discharged and sent home to Colorado, but he holds onto the picture, which he considers his good luck charm. With no real plan and a touch of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Logan decides to walk from Colorado to Louisiana in order to find this random beauty and thank her for saving his life.
Having once espoused his admiration for Leonardo DiCaprio’s smooth transition from fan-girl poster-child to Oscar favorite, Efron is clearly on the hunt for juicy dramatic parts that will help stake his claim as an actor of substance. More or less, he’s found one in Logan, a haunted but gentle warrior struggling with survivor’s guilt and a crippling lack of purpose. Beefed up and ruggedly unkempt, Efron plays him strong and silent, but where’s the heartbreak below the stony visage? He’s more of a hunky mannequin than a human being, and Efron, relying more on his hypnotic blue peepers than on protean emotional expressions, misses a chance to give the film’s central dreamboat a candidly colorful puissance.
After a little light investigating, Logan tracks the girl to a kennel out in the Bayou. Deciding to keep his ulterior motive a secret, supposedly because it’s too hard for him to talk about, Logan gets a job there, cleaning up after the mangy mutts. His luminescent guardian angel, Beth, played by Taylor Schilling with a more variant spectrum of sneers and lustful glances, turns out to be the owner. At first, she treats Logan’s “drifter” with cold reticence, but then warms to him after seeing how good he looks while lifting heavy bags of dog food in a tight shirt. Logan’s motives are never entirely clear, but we can assume the attraction is mutual. The necessary hurdle blocking their serendipitous path to love is Beth’s jealous ex-husband, Keith, the local sheriff, a villain so clichéd and boorish he’s practically a cartoon.
The best character in the movie is Beth’s grandmother, Ellie, who’s played by Blythe Danner as a slightly amused box of wisdom. Overall, though, the movie languorously moves through its highly robotic motions, groping desperately for any shred of drama or romance. Working from a lackluster adaptation, director Scott Hicks can’t really rely on his young actors—especially Efron—to transcend the material, so there’s very little revelatory dialogue to be found, even of the sappiest variety. Hicks, instead, tries to tell the story the characters can’t through florid and autumnal pictorials of Schilling splashing in creeks or Efron walking soldierly along Southern dirt roads, all tuned to the romantic keys of inoffensive pop love-anthems. Mostly, The Lucky One is a series of lethargic musical montages and truncated dialogue scenes strung together by the dental floss of passionless romance and a dishonest portrait of returning veterans. Even for cinematic junk food, this is pretty indigestible.