Aficionados of Nicholas Sparks‘ particular brand of one note romantic dramas will probably flock to this latest cinematic adaptation of his books, but those looking for more than pretty melodrama will be left feeling short-changed. Even within the company of recent Sparks releases like this year’s ‘The Vow’, ‘The Lucky One’ comes across as a two-dimensional cartoon masquerading as heartfelt human interaction. The film’s producers, led by Denise Di Novi, have essentially created a watered down template that is so determined to mine the safety of its source (and predecessors), that any interest is quickly evaporated beneath the picture postcard glow of a sun-kissed and soft-focus Louisiana.
Zac Efron, in a valiant attempt to play to the adult crowd, is Logan Thibault, a beefy ex-marine who returns home after experiencing some studio back-lot Afghan warfare. During these chaotically shot opening sequences he comes across a photo amidst the rubble of a beautiful woman, and soon comes to believe that in his ensuing missions it’s the photo that is his good luck charm. Just in case he’s unable to come to that conclusion himself his colleagues make sure they tell him that at any given opportunity; right up to the end when his non-photo finding compadre gets shot/blown to smithereens. I guess he really is the lucky one.
Back home in Colorado Efron has obvious trouble adjusting to civvy street, crashing with his sister and her family, and after making an instinctive throat-grab on his unsuspecting nephew he decides it’s time he hit the road. Fortunately he has managed to track down the exact location of the mysterious photo by, it seems, googling lighthouses. Thus armed, and taking along his German Shepherd dog, Zeus, he walks the 1000 odd miles to Louisiana.
Eventually finding himself in bucolic burgh of the deep south he discovers that his guardian angel is actually Beth Green (Taylor Schilling), and the joint owner of a dog kennel outside of town, with her naturally wise, and mischievous grandmother (Blythe Danner). In one of the The Lucky One’s rare, nicely played moments (yes, there are some), Beth is not immediately bowled over by the soulful quietude of Logan, but instead confuses him for a job applicant, and then figures him for a possible wacko after he cops to his bi-pedal migration from middle America.
Grandmother though always knows best and after witnessing Logan’s uncanny ability to make Zeus the dog lie down and shut up, and the fact that he’s easy on the eye and just the right age for her grand-daughter, she offers him a job. Logan of course switches the focus and becomes a literal angel of maintenance as far as the kennel is concerned, a do-gooder automaton. Beth even gets to the point of asking if he has an off switch. But luckily he doesn’t, finding himself getting acquainted with Beth’s son Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart), a smart kid plagued with a mop haircut and love of the violin. Ben also has the weight of divorced parents and father worship for a man who barely understands his son’s artistic bent, is patently not over his domestic failure and who also happens to be the local Sheriff.
Jay R. Ferguson as Sheriff Keith Clayton has a thankless task working against the practically unimpeachable goodness of Mr Efron; I mean the man even plays the piano. And even the shadow of the real reason he’s come to town can’t tarnish his Sparksian purity. Ferguson is left to squeeze what humanity he can out of a seemingly deliberate two-dimensional antagonist. Ultimately he is allowed a saving grace but it’s the film equivalent of throwing a dog a half-chewed bone.
The flatness of characterisation is perhaps The Lucky One’s biggest problem, with strokes not so much broad as half-heartedly spattered; formulaic to the point of audience participation failure. Efron manfully attempts to break free of his teen heartthrob back catalogue but he really doesn’t have anything to play with, and his determination to dial down his natural sparkle-eyed enthusiasm throughout the film renders him an almost mute presence, a Zac zombie. Schilling as his romantic foil is allowed a little more room but it’s still emoting by numbers. Why express your feelings with words and subtlety when you can just go and smash some flower pots?
The director, Scott Hicks, is the man behind the electrifying Shine, and you can only guess, and perhaps hope, that this straightjacketed romance is down to the restrictive nature of it’s production. This is the fourth Sparks adaptation that Di Novi has brought to the screen and it seems that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it is the rule of the day. Nicholas Sparks’ tales and the films that have sprung from them obviously have an audience somewhere as the films’ box office success in the States testifies, but at one point in The Lucky One Zac asks ‘How do you explain something that you can’t even understand yourself?’, and I’d say that was a fair question for this entire enterprise.
The Lucky One is released in UK cinemas on Wednesday 2nd March.