It’s Nicholas Sparks’ world; we just live in it. Sparks, in case you haven’t scanned the paperback racks lately, is the former pharmaceutical salesman who’s written 16 bestsellers since 1995, when The Notebook was plucked from the slush pile by a wily publisher. The 2004 movie version of The Notebook was the third Sparks to be filmed, but it’s the one against which all other adaptations are measured. Lit within an inch of its life, and corny as hell, it’s one of those date night flicks we’re all too cool to fall for, but the chemistry between the leads, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, is pretty irresistible. Directed by Scott Hicks (Shine), The Lucky One is the seventh Sparks movie—two more are currently in pre-production—and, well, it’s no Notebook. In fact, it’s the most leaden of the bunch.
Zac Efron, impressively containing his innate physical exuberance, stars as U.S. Marine Sergeant Logan Thibault, who’s on his third tour of Iraq as the film opens. After a firefight in which several men in another platoon are killed, Logan is resting by a truck when something in the dirt catches his eye: a photo of pretty girl standing near a lighthouse. Just as Logan walks over to pick it up, a mortar round blows up his truck. Close call!
Soldiers are a superstitious lot, and that photo becomes Logan’s lucky charm. So when his tour ends, he sets out to find the girl and thank her for getting him through safely. Faster than you can say Google, Logan discovers that the lighthouse is in Louisiana, but before heading there, he stops in Colorado, where he jumps at loud noises and nearly strangles his nephew when the boy playfully attempts to wake him. Only mildly alarmed, his sister suggests a military therapist. Does Logan have post traumatic stress disorder? Apparently not, because screenwriter Will Fetters (Remember Me) never references such behavior again. It may be that exercise is the cure for PTSD because, from Colorado, Logan and his faithful German Shepherd journey to Louisiana by foot. That’s an awfully long walk, but before you know it, Logan is shaking hands with Beth (Taylor Schilling), his blond talisman.
Love stories of this type are all about failed communication, and so it is that before he can explain about the photo, Beth has mistaken Logan for a job applicant, and hired him to work at the gorgeous, farm-like pet kennel she runs with the grandmother who raised her. Nana, as Beth calls her, is deftly played by Blythe Danner, a fine actress who’s been better served by television than movies. Presumably, neither Ellen Burstyn nor Gena Rowlands were available to play Nana, who spends her days doing paint-by-number watercolors, cutting fresh roses from her movie-perfect garden, and arching a knowing brow at Beth and Logan, who are predictably blind to their growing love.
Lust does eventually win out. After a few beers, Efron’s shirt finally (!) comes off and he and Schilling feign PG-13 ecstasy beneath the white mosquito netting that drapes Logan’s bed. (Hey, this is Louisiana.) They hit the sack more than once, actually (making a slow-moving film feel even longer), but no amount of neck nuzzling or back arching can make us believe there’s real heat rising between these two. Onscreen chemistry between actors is a mysterious thing—100 years into cinema, it remains the one story element that Hollywood can’t fake.