'The Lucky One': Sparks Fizzles
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
With best-seller-to-movie successes like "The Notebook," "Dear John" and others, author Nicholas Sparks has become a brand in Hollywood -- a bland brand, to be sure, but a brand nonetheless. (It's telling that "The Vow," which reunited two stars from previous Sparks films in a Sparks-esque mix of romance and tragedy, had many audience members thinking it was a Sparks adaptation based on those similarities alone.)
"The Lucky One" stars Zac Efron as Logan, an ex-Marine searching for the mystery woman whose picture he found in Iraq -- a picture he feels kept him from harm. And after cross-correlating the background of the photo, he figures out where the young lady is and ... walks from Colorado to Louisiana to find her.
Soon, he meets the woman in the photo, Beth (Taylor Schilling), whose too-busy dog kennel and training facility coincidentally needs some hired help, and who is shattered in the wake of her brother Drake dying in Iraq. Logan takes the job, and as he throws himself into the work being pretty much perfect, divorced single mom Beth starts developing feelings. That's all you need to know of the plot of "The Lucky One," which rolls along on a series of square-wheeled coincidences, turning down rough roads of ridiculousness. Logan never comes clean to Beth, even when doing so would clear a bunch of things up. Beth has to have a hissable bully of a lawman ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson). Beth has to have a plucky son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart), whom Logan will help come out of his shell. And, this being a Sparks adaptation, when Logan and Beth do physically express their affection, it's accompanied by sheets and sheets of water in forms ranging from sweat to shower spray to rain.
Director Scott Hicks ("Shine," "Snow Falling on Cedars") and screenwriter Will Fetters ("Remember Me") try, but there's not a lot they can do to customize what feels like a product that's rolled off the Sparks assembly line with every ridiculous plot contortion hard-welded into the structure. When Logan is loading dog food bags off a truck, sweaty and muscled, Beth, watching him while washing the dishes, begins scrubbing a soapy pot in a parody of lust. The audience was laughing long before Blythe Danner, as Beth's mom, Ellie, sardonically noted, "Well, that's the cleanest it's ever gonna be."
More of that kind of humor and heart might have helped leaven the leaden clichés and groaners in the story. When someone nearly finds an incriminating object Logan's left lying around under a book, he exhales -- and leaves the object where it was, and where it was nearly found, so it can be found later when it's necessary to the mechanical, clunky advancement of the mechanical, clunky plot. I could name a hundred examples of this in the script and story: moments where characters don't act like people so that there can be just enough implausible and melodramatic stumbling points before we reach the happy ending right before the ending voice-over.
Much like in "The Notebook," the effortless charms and more labored acting efforts of the two leads help a lot. But that earlier film was the third Sparks adaptation. This, the seventh, feels less like a "lather, rinse, repeat" process than the moviemaking equivalent of when you put a little water in an exhausted shampoo bottle and shake it to try to extract the dregs. (Part of the blame must also go to producer Denise Di Novi, who's been involved in bringing five of seven Sparks projects to the screen, a familiarity that breeds a deadly, dozy sense of "content" on-screen here.) "The Lucky One" will tell you it's all about "fate" and "destiny" and "chance" and "love," but really it's about rigorously, robotically following a predetermined "tried and true" phony and false formula that got watered down to nothingness a couple films back.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.