‘The Lucky One’ Review
You can take the guy out of ‘High School Musical,’ but you can’t the ‘High School Musical’ out of the guy. Zac Efron might have sprouted a few tattoos and a stubbly beard but he still looks a bit too babyfaced to play a guy like ‘The Lucky One”s U.S Marine Sargent Logan Thibault, a 25-year-old veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq. In theory, Logan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In practice, Efron is just a quiet dude with a surprisingly extensive wardrobe of dark wash denim jeans.
The boyishly handsome Efron may not be the ideal man to represent the struggles of returning Iraq War veterans onscreen, but he’s an appropriate one for a film like ‘The Lucky One,’ a romantic drama based on a novel by Nicolas Sparks, the author of ‘The Notebook,’ ‘Message in a Bottle,’ and assorted other films that give men the uncontrollable urge to come with an excuse why they can’t take their wives to the movies on Friday night. Sparks and director Scott Hicks are less interested in the plight of returning soldiers than in the vagaries of fate, destiny, and movie schmaltz.
The film follows Logan as he searches for the woman in a picture he found by chance on the battlefield. Reaching down to pull it out of the sand saved his life, and so he declares the woman his good luck angel and determines to meet her after he returns home. It might sound difficult to locate a random woman in a mysterious photograph out of the hundreds of millions of people in this country. Nope; Logan finds his angel, a single mom named Beth (Taylor Schilling), before the end of the opening credits. They don’t call him the lucky one for nothing.
Beth mistakes Logan for a job applicant at her dog kennel; struggling to find the words to explain how he knows her without sounding like a borderline psychotic stalker, he plays along. Soon he’s teaching agility courses and heaving heavy bags of kibble while Beth watches from her kitchen window as she orgasmically rinses her dirty pots and pans (no, really). Erotic dishwashing doesn’t sit well with Beth’s cruel ex-husband Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), who uses his job as sheriff to intimidate Logan into leaving town. The whole scenario — emotionally wounded vet pushed and prodded towards a breaking point by an ludicrously antagonistic local cop — plays like ‘First Blood: The Chick Flick Cut.’
I could continue the synopsis, but why bother? You know what’s going to happen. Logan and Beth will fall in love — tentatively and awkwardly at first, of course — followed by a misunderstanding that could be easily cleared up with a few careful words, a temporary breakup, those few careful words, and a final reconciliation. No surprises there, but that’s fine.
The point of a movie like ‘The Lucky One’ is reassurance, not surprise. Audiences lining up for a Nicolas Sparks’ adaptation don’t want to be challenged, they want to be swept up in the warm, reassuring embrace of formula. They want to taste the overwhelming, unstoppable power of love. They want to believe.
The problem with ‘The Lucky One,’ then, isn’t the material’s familiarity; it’s its lifelessness. Even with eeeeeevil Keith spending his every waking moment spying on Logan, even with the secret of Beth’s photograph hanging over their relationship, there isn’t much driving this story forward. Scene after scene meanders by without a whiff of momentum. The only pleasure the film provides is the beauty of its two leads who make an exceedingly photogenic but oddly mismatched couple. Schilling’s Beth is all frazzled nerves; Efron’s Logan often looks too sleepy to be haunted by nightmares of wars past. Hicks’ constant barrage of montages (a “montagarrage?”) of the couple enjoying Beth’s impossibly idyllic property — replete with a babbling brook, rope bridge, and treehouse — does little to disguise the fact that the two have very little chemistry together, even while making out under an outdoor shower in their clothes (as you do).
Hicks’ conception of Sparks’ world, an Edenic paradise bathed in perpetual golden sunshine, seems at odds with a story about two people with heavy emotional burdens. The grief and pain that lingers in all the characters’ backstories feels wildly disconnected from the glamorous surfaces of this Hollywood production. If the world is so tough, why does everything and everyone look so beautiful?
What’s that honey? No, I can’t take you to the movies on Friday. No I, uh, have to alphabetize my sock drawer.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’