In the first five minutes of “The Lucky One,” based on the Nicholas Sparks book of the same name, a group of Marines are ambushed, landmines and tanks blow up, and a survivor struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder in his everyday life. It’s an unexpectedly jarring start to what seems like typical romantic fluff. Is it possible that Sparks’ storytelling has evolved, resulting in an intriguing hybrid of recent Iraq War dramas like “The Hurt Locker” and “The Messenger?”
After the promising opening moments, star Zac Efron begins blabbing via voiceover about his generic philosophy — something romantic about fate and destiny, of course — and stares off into the distance with his deep blue eyes while the audience realizes they’ve started their descent into yet another cliché and tedious Nicholas Sparks tale, albeit one better made than usual.
Efron plays Logan, a Marine who survives a series of close encounters during his three tours in Iraq. He thinks much of the credit for his survival belongs to Beth (Taylor Schilling), a dog groomer in Louisiana whose photo Logan found before a landmine killed most of his team.
The veteran walks halfway across the U.S. — literally — to find and thank her, but Beth’s struggle with her military brother’s death in Iraq makes his story hard to tell. Logan decides to stick around and help out Beth and her grandma (Blythe Danner) at the dog kennel, hoping to find the right time to tell his tale and perhaps even fall in love in the process.
“The Lucky One’s” story is pure romantic hokum, but Sparks and screenwriter Will Fetters do it no favors by piling on overused clichés and irritatingly one-dimensional characters. Beth predictably has an adorably mop-headed son whose lone purpose is to be cute and precious. Danner’s grandmother character, the typical wise elder who provides sage advice and snappy comedic relief, is just as trite, but luckily, she’s given a little life by the veteran actress.
The most egregious cliché, however, comes in the form of Keith (“Mad Men’s” Jay R. Ferguson), Beth’s jealous and often creepy ex-husband. Sparks and Fetters mindlessly combine almost every ’80s sports movie bully into one constantly awful character. Whether he’s stalking Beth, calling Logan “soldier boy” or starting drunken fights on the street, every scene is written and performed for maximum hatred. He even threatens to shoot a dog, in case domestic abuse wasn’t a clear enough indication of pure evil.
Keith is even more annoying since the movie technically doesn’t need his over-the-top theatrics. The beginning of the film sets up Efron’s struggles with PTSD, but the movie unfortunately abandons that complex and intriguing conflict for an easier, more identifiable villain.
Considering Sparks’ appalling history of pillaging real medical and mental ailments for easy drama and tear jerking, such as in the abominable “Dear John,” maybe the cartoonish bully route was for the best.
Despite the plethora of clichés, however, “The Lucky One” doesn’t merit the same kind of anger as other recent Nicholas Sparks projects and their knock-offs, like “The Vow.” It may be tired romantic schmaltz, but at least in this case, it’s decently made schmaltz. Outside of indulging in about three too many dog-washing montages, director Scott Hicks gets some beautifully colorful and composed shots of their Louisiana locations. The tediousness of the story goes down much more smoothly when mixed with luxurious images of sunlight seeping through a tree-filled riverbank.
Efron and relative newcomer Schilling may not be the finest young actors, but they are enjoyable to watch on screen. Neither get too under the skin of their characters’ war-related troubles, but when the movie settles into its romantic beats, they’re pleasant enough to watch.
But I suppose if there were four words to describe “The Lucky One,” “pleasant enough to watch” would be perfect. It doesn’t surpass its expectations in any way but doesn’t fall below them either. And considering the typical romantic dreck that comes out of the Nicholas Sparks factory, that’s almost a compliment.