Let me get this out there straight away: I like Zac Efron. I’m a fan. Not in a winking, guilty pleasure way. And not in a ‘High School Musical rocks!’ kind of way either. I’m in the middle of those. I think he’s a good actor, a proper movie star-in-waiting. He looks good, has a terrific head of hair (the Clint Eastwood school of movie star flexibility – if you’ve got good hair, you’ve got good range) he can hold a tune, dance, and has comic timing as good as anyone (don’t believe me? Watch 17 Again).
I’m obviously not the only one who thinks that. The Lucky One is a movie built around Efron the movie star, right from the opening voiceover where he gets to say something deep while the camera pans across a scenic landscape. His character, a Marine of few words and lots of buttoned up emotions, can play piano, fix a boat engine, spruce up a bedroom, has a dog as a best friend, and doesn’t flinch when there’s a gun pointed at his head. He even gets a John Wayne moment, framed within a doorway like the Duke in The Searchers.
If that was all The Lucky One was, then we’d be on to a winner, because Efron makes for a magnetic screen presence. He can do quiet brooding better than Channing Tatum did in Dear John and can turn on a dazzling smile as easily as Travolta to break the monotony of too much emotional introspection (too much bloody introspection, as it turns out).
But The Lucky One is also a film based on a Nicholas Sparks book, the umpteenth one he’s done about tragic love or love blossoming amidst tragic circumstances, or love cut down by tragic events. Chances are he’ll cover one of those. So The Lucky One has to fit into a very well-worn formula: attractive people meet in strange circumstances, fall in love after brief early antagonism, enjoy montages together, but then hit a revelation where the strange circumstances are revealed.
Here, Sparks’ hook is a photo of a woman. It saves the life of Efron’s Logan (note to potential screenwriters: last names make awesome first names for movie characters) when it diverts him away from an enemy attack in Iraq, and it drives him to find out whose photo it is so he can say thank you. Or something a bit more profound.
Turns out, the photo is that of Beth (played by the incredibly likeable Taylor Schilling). She has family turmoil (but a lovely house, so swings and roundabouts, really). Logan has turmoil too, both from Iraq, and from keeping quiet about finding her photo. And there beginnith the romance.
You can see where this is heading can’t you? That’s the big problem with The Lucky One. It’s set on autopilot to a third act plot point so signposted (something about a photo …) that it renders the first two acts dramatically inert.
What’s more, it straitjackets Efron’s natural energy. Screenwriter Will Fetters does for Efron what he did for Robert Pattinson in Remember Me, giving him few words and lots of long stares. But it makes for a less interesting character here because The Lucky One’s story feels so manufactured, a plot device in search of characters. It doesn’t help that Fetters peppers the film with dialogue that sounds like clipped literary prose rather than anything actual people might say.
Director Scott Hicks has been treading a lot of water since Shine – Hearts In Atlantis was mawkish, No Reservations nice, without being anything more than that – and you can’t escape the feeling he’s doing that here too. The Lucky One looks lovely, but lacks any real emotional impact. Its pacing is all over the place – the film rushes through Logan’s journey from competent Marine to psychologically damaged drifter in a pre-credits sequence, then spends far too long keeping him and Beth at loggerheads – and relies on too many stock characters to populate the film (evil ex-husband, precociously talented but shy son).
And yet, I still enjoyed it. It’s undemanding, made me want to own a dog and live in a big barn, and has a cast that make up for a lot. Efron, even in quiet, introspective mode, radiates a warm glow that makes the world seem a nicer place. Although the jury’s still out on whether he can grow a full beard (on this evidence he has a lot of work to do around the jowl areas). Schilling, who I’ve not seen in anything before this, does well balancing vulnerability and acerbic swipes to make Beth a bit more rounded than the usual girl-falling-in-love with-Zac-Efron. And Blythe Danner (enter wise-cracking grandmother stage left) can do this stuff in her sleep.
It can’t touch The Notebook, or Nights In Rodanthe, or even Message In A Bottle on the Nicholas Sparks adaptation league table, but it’s still better than Dear John. And yes, I realise that may be damning it with slight praise. But it’s praise nonetheless.