(by Dustin Putman
"Did you take your medication?" young single mother Beth (Taylor Schilling) asks her energetic, former stroke-victim grandma Ellie (Blythe Danner) early on in "The Lucky One." For a best-selling romance novelist like Nicholas Sparks, who never met a well-meaning character he didn't want to tragically kill, this line would seem to be an instantaneous death sentence. One supposes it's a testament to Sparks' relative restraint that he allows sweet Ellie to survive through the end, but this particular story and film adaptation is so hopelessly plodding and bland that an extra helping of fatalities could have only broken the monotony. Far-fetched and then insulting as decisions are made for no good reason other than to complicate a thread-thin plot, "The Lucky One" is but a series of lovingly lit shots in search of a purpose for existing. Article continues below
US Marine vet Logan Thibault (Zac Efron) is only twenty-five, and already he's lived through three tours of duty in Iraq. His lucky charm, he believes, is an unmarked snapshot of a beautiful woman he found in the war zone. When he returns home to the U.S., he has no apparent goals other than to find this mystery gal—a process that takes all of five seconds when he matches the lighthouse in the background of the shot to one located in Hamden, Louisiana. Traveling down there, he stumbles upon the girl in the picture on the first try (is this guy psychic or what?) and ends up getting hired at the dog kennel she runs with her nana. Logan wants to explain to Beth why he has really come here, but for no apparent reason he chooses to keep it a secret. Instead, they begin to fall in love under dishonest circumstances, an added dose of trouble coming their way in the form of Beth's jealous and vindictive ex-husband, Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), naturally the town deputy and newly threatening to fight for custody of their 8-year-old son Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart).
That's about all there is to "The Lucky One," a 101-minute slice of soapy tripe that hinges audience interest on ramshackle clichés, from a one-note adversary always showing up at just the right time to supremely annoy and threaten the protagonists, to a central love story based upon truths that one of them has hidden from the other. Keith has no life outside of throwing fits and empty threats around over the "drifter" Beth has welcomed into her life. As for why Logan opts not to explain his connection to Beth early on, there is no valid excuse; time and again, he has the chance to bring it up—why would he even hide such a thing, anyway?—but doesn't. Without this flimsy secret hanging over Logan's head, there would be no movie. Director Scott Hicks (2009's "The Boys Are Back") and screenwriter Will Fetters (2010's "Remember Me"), clearly at a loss for bringing to life one of Spark's least dynamic works, match the slow pace of small-town living with a filmic momentum that roughly resembles stale molasses petrifying on a tree trunk. Dialogue is forgettable and workmanlike. Character development is poor. Logan's ingratiation into Beth's life as he bonds with her son and proves himself to be an upstanding guy isn't just predictable, but an inevitability.
Zac Efron, who shared palpable chemistry with Amanda Crew in 2010's "Charlie St. Cloud" and Michelle Pfeiffer in 2011's "New Year's Eve," hasn't as much luck with his latest co-star, newcomer Taylor Schilling, as Beth. Schilling is fine when she's not called upon to bawl while tossing potted plants around, but neither actor has much to work with. They either go through the paces or look preoccupied, their natural attractiveness only winning the viewer over during some surprisingly steamy sex scenes that push the PG-13 rating to its hot-and-bothered-but-not-too-bothered boundaries. As grandmother Ellie, Blythe Danner (2011's "What's Your Number?") lends dignity to any role that doesn't end in "Fockers," and this is no exception. Does she really have anything to do, though, other than act as sounding board for granddaughter Beth? It's a thankless part for a lesser performer. Finally, Jay R. Ferguson (2000's "The In Crowd") is loathsome as Beth's rat of an ex Keith, a couple half-hearted attempts at giving him a conscience coming too little too late for a character who enters the film with a flashing neon sign hung around his neck blinking "Bad Guy."
"The Lucky One" questions the role of fate in our life and the unpredictable places it may take us if we open our minds to it. Or something of the sort. Most audience members will be too distracted by the way the camera objectifies Zac Efron's biceps as he performs handiwork and Beth eavesdrops, mouth agape, from the kitchen. When his muscles aren't front and center, what is there to do but be bothered by the ludicrous idiocies of the plot? One would imagine it might be difficult locating an unnamed person in a photograph, but Logan pinpoints said woman's identity and location before the opening credits are over. It makes less sense the more it's contemplated. Following this, it's strictly Creaky Screenwriting 101, so empty-headed beyond the surface beauty of its leads that it wouldn't be a surprise if it were actually adapted from a Harlequin romance. But no, it's Nicholas Sparks, all right, right down to the storm that pops up just in time for the climax where one person sacrifices his or her life to save someone who's stupidly decided to go into the woods and take a walk across a rickety bridge during a monsoon. There have been a few strong page-to-cinema Sparks translations in the past (2004's "The Notebook" and 2008's "Nights in Rodanthe," for example), but there have been even more mediocre ones, like 1999's "Message in a Bottle" and 2010's "The Last Song." Reliant on conventions or not, success depends on the treatment of the material, the fireworks between love interests, and the critical condition that it's actually a tale worth telling. "The Lucky One" isn't. At all. It's a new nadir for Sparks in Hollywood, and director Scott Hicks is left holding the shovel.