Luck is stepping out of the path of a falling bomb to pick up a photo dropped on the field of battle, the way Zac Efron’s soldier boy does in “The Lucky One.” Deciding to track down the beautiful blonde whose picture saved his life, only to discover she’s his soul mate — well, that smacks more of contrivance, and it takes Nicholas Sparks to spin such a whopper into date-movie fodder. The trouble with destiny is that it leaves no room for surprise; ditto this safe midseason romancer, which can’t touch “The Vow’s” recent runaway success.
“Handsome” is the most fitting word to describe helmer Scott Hicks’ approach to capturing the Sparksian sensibility onscreen. When a novel gives you soapsuds and washboard abs to work with, what other choice does a director have but to provide the most aesthetically pleasing actors, scenery and sets to disguise the thinness of the underlying material.
The author of such swoon-inducing pop favorites as “Message in a Bottle,” “The Notebook” and “Nights in Rodanthe,” Sparks gives readers the same warm-fuzzy appeal as a Thomas Kinkade painting, and numerous shots in the film seem to bear the late artist’s touch. Just as few actually stop to wonder what sort of people inhabit Kinkade’s perfectly lit cottages, “The Lucky One” offers pleasant surfaces, but little insight into the characters beneath.
Efron plays Logan, whose “strong, silent type” exterior runs counter to what has made the charismatic actor so appealing in pretty-boy roles. In early scenes, Efron tries to look deadly earnest against the gritty backdrop of the Iraq War, but mostly he’s just handsome. At least twice, the photo saves his life, and when he returns home to Colorado after three tours as a Marine, the adjustment is tough enough that he (a) stops shaving and (b) decides to hunt for the guardian angel in the good-luck snapshot he now carries in his wallet.
An honest, eye-opening movie could still be made from this point, following Logan as he sets off on a cross-country journey to find a stranger about whom he knows nothing and during which he would inevitably discover things about himself. Instead, Logan’s trek is reduced to a feel-good montage: just a man and his dog and a mellow offscreen guitar to serenade his way — the greeting-card version of what, a generation or so earlier, might have been a tormented hippie walkabout.
If Will Fetters’ script answers how Logan deduces that the woman lives in Hamden, La., then the explanation slips by fast enough to miss it. When he arrives in town, Logan shows her photo at a local bar and is promptly directed to the kennel where Beth (Taylor Schilling) conveniently mistakes the glassy-eyed drifter for a job applicant. In the book, perhaps agreeing to work for Beth gives Logan time to fall in love with her. Here, he seems smitten as far back as Iraq, and it’s Beth — a single mother with a no-good ex-husband, Keith (“Mad Men’s” Jay R. Ferguson), and anger toward the military, since it claimed the life of her brother — who needs time to warm up to this handsome suitor/stalker/stranger.
After playing heartland hero Dagny Taggart in last year’s “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” Schilling is a fitting choice to step into Beth’s strong-willed shoes. As a reflection of the film’s Middle American Christian values, Beth admirably puts her son’s welfare above her own, and she has good reason to be wary of Logan, who nearly choked one of his young nephews to death during a post-traumatic episode earlier in the film.
But unlike 2008’s “The Lucky Ones,” which realistically dealt with issues veterans face on the homefront, Hicks’ pic seems to forget this incident as soon as it passes. Instead, it views Logan as the ideal man, treating his slow courtship of Beth as an extension of the patient-yet-firm approach he displays training dogs at her kennel. Reinforcing this unflattering analogy, there’s Blythe Danner on the edge of every scene, eliciting smiles as she knowingly steers her granddaughter Beth into Logan’s arms.
Whereas the couple’s romance suggests no shortage of potential challenges, the film paints a simpler place, like something out a 1950s Hollywood melodrama — spiced up by a guilt-free romp in Logan’s outdoor shower, followed by a bout of preposterous sopping-wet sex. The only conflict to be had is the fact that Keith is the town’s deputy sheriff, but even his harassment can’t bring down spirits in mythical Hamden, where every hour is magic hour and the Louisiana scenery is so beautiful, Alar Kivilo’s lensing would be no less pleasant to watch without a single person in it.
Love songs like Brandi Carlile’s “The Story” further sweeten Mark Isham’s already romantic score, while below-the-line contributions are, predictably, handsome.