The Lucky One is a like a corny silent movie to which someone made the mistake of adding sound. Based on one of Nicholas Sparks' overripe romance novels, it is about a stoic, sensitive man who falls for a beautiful but wounded woman, who must escape from the iron grip of her violent ex-husband.
For good measure, the movie also includes some hambone Hallmark-style narration about destiny, luck and choosing the right path in life, along with a few sun-baked shots of dogs romping through the grass. To call it drivel would be an insult to most drivel, which usually at least has earnestness on its side.
Zac Efron, who made a fast, flirty impression in the "High School Musical" movies, Hairspray and even last year's otherwise unwatchable New Year's Eve, has beefed up and quit smiling -- a sure sign that the young actor is desperate for us to take him seriously. Alas, his Logan Thibault is anything but flirty or fast, though he is very good at walking.
He travels on foot from Colorado to Louisiana, with his loyal German shepherd in tow, to track down a mysterious woman whose picture he found in the middle of a combat zone in Iraq. Her name is Beth (Taylor Schilling, from the NBC series Mercy), and her brother was killed in the war under mysterious circumstances.
Sparks, who has had six other novels made into films, including The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe and The Last Song, will never be celebrated for the elegance of his formulas: Boy usually meets girl, and fate, family or leukemia contrive to keep them apart. Until now the best thing that could be said for him is that he has avoided devolving into utter tastelessness.
But The Lucky One -- the screenplay adaptation is by Will Fetters -- uses the tragedies of the war in Iraq as cheap fodder and uneasy metaphor, about how we must constantly be seeking renewal even when the bullets are raining down upon us. Director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars) compounds the cynicism by shooting everything in amber light or artful slow-motion -- even a soldier getting shot by a sniper is just an excuse for cool editing tricks that distort the man's face into a rubbery mask.
Arriving in Louisiana, Logan quickly finds Beth, who works at a kennel with her grandmother (Blythe Danner) on the outskirts of their bucolic small town, and worms his way into their lives -- though somehow he is never able to tell her why he has walked so far. Beth is suspicious of Logan but glimpses him tossing heavy bags of dog food around, all sensitive man sweat and decorously smudged dirt on his forehead, and she's a goner.
If only pesky deputy sheriff Keith (Jay R. Ferguson) -- Beth's ex-husband, who keeps threatening to claim custody of their child (Riley Thomas Stewart) -- didn't keep getting in the way of their bliss.
The fact that this story contains not a single unpredictable turn isn't necessarily the problem: Hollywood romances are supposed to telegraph and delay the inevitable gratification. But there's also no heat or spark in The Lucky One, nothing to make us care. Efron and Schilling are lovely specimens, evenly tanned and absent of any discernible fat cells -- yet they don't seem like real people, and they hardly seem turned on by one another.
At the screening I attended, the love scene sent titters through the audience, not because of any unruly passion, but because it is glowingly lit and woodenly performed -- like Cinemax After Dark soft porn, except PG-13 rated. The ending is even more laughable, with a pounding rainstorm, a rickety rope bridge and the requisite child in peril.
This movie's shamelessness knows no depths. The lucky one is anyone smart enough to stay home.