Taylor Schilling and Zac Efron "The Lucky One." (Alan Markfield, Warner…)
The sweet but not too syrupy romance of "The Lucky One,"starring a buffed Zac Efron and a blond Taylor Schilling, is about love emerging from the war-ravaged rubble of a young soldier's heart and the unlikely things that save him.
Directed by Scott Hicks ("Shine"), with Will Fetters adapting the Nicholas Sparks novel, this is the latest and the best Sparks-inspired film to come along since "The Notebook" won over hearts, if not minds, in 2004. The Sparks-styled romance has almost become its own movie genre — predictable, pure of heart, sentimental and never straying from the boy-meets-girl basics, or the surface, for that matter — and in that "The Lucky One" delivers.
Rendered in a Norman Rockwell '50s Americana style with white picket fences and church on Sunday, the story is nevertheless present day. It opens as Marine Sgt. Logan Thibault (Efron) is caught in a firefight during his third tour in Iraq. In the aftermath, something catches his eye and when he goes to investigate, an explosion hits the very spot where he'd been sitting. It's a photo of a girl, and his buddies believe it's what saved him — and continues to save him — against all odds.
When he comes back to the States with those battlefield nightmares still, Logan decides the girl in the picture holds the answers. Soon, he and Zeus, his faithful German Shepherd, head out to find her — on foot, cross-country. Don't bother asking why.
Forever playing off the message in the title, Logan finds the town and the girl. But what then? Well, where one journey ends, another begins. Fetters strips down Sparks' already slight story to the essentials, echoing the minimalist montage style of Fetters'"Remember Me,"a moody9/11love story with lots of close-ups of Robert Pattinson.
The girl in the photo is Beth (Schilling), a single mom who lives with young son Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart) and her aging-gracefully grandmother Ellie (Blythe Danner) in an elegant old house surrounded by lush grounds perfect for the kennel that the family runs. As luck would have it, they have a job open when Logan shows up with the well-trained Zeus at his side.
This is a film in desperate search of conflict of both the internal and external sort. For Logan, it's how to tell Beth about the photo. For Beth, it's slightly more — she doesn't trust Marines for reasons that will come out later, and she doesn't trust Logan's story about why he's turned up in town.
The closest thing "The Lucky One" has to a villain is Beth's ex, Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), a deputy sheriff with a bad temper who doesn't want Beth dating despite the divorce. His family owns the town, where he's known as the son who never measured up. With all his issues, Keith's vices have been significantly dialed down from the book, but he'll have to do.
Without much tension, the film becomes more of an extended music video of Logan and Beth's rocky road to love, beautifully captured by director of photography Alar Kivilo ("The Blind Side"). There are long shots of Logan walking down a tree-lined path; Logan and Beth playful in the kitchen; Logan and Ben playing chess; Logan and Zeus and Ben playing ball; Logan sweating through his tight tee walking the dogs. Because this is definitely Logan's, and thus Efron's, movie.
The 50 pounds of muscle the actor put on for the part does a world of good, not merely on the eye-candy front. It gives the actor some substance, offsets his pretty just enough, and grounds his performance in a way that makes Logan feel like the solid, stand-up guy he's meant to be. Although the Richard Linklater drama"Me and Orson Welles" pushed Efron out of the comfort zone of his "High School Musical" days, "The Lucky One" is right in his wheelhouse.
Efron is helped by the solid ensemble around him, with young Stewart all wide-eyed charm and Danner playing wise but flighty Ellie with such ease. But it is Schilling, so moving as the tough-wounded nurse in the short-lived TV medical drama "Mercy," who gives Beth some depth, something real for Efron to play off of.
As a filmmaker, Hicks has proved to be very good at controlling emotional pieces, with "Shine," which won an Oscar for Geoffrey Rush as a mentally broken pianist, his high mark. While Efron and Schilling provide the chemistry this sort of movie needs, it is Hicks' measured hand that keeps "The Lucky One" from turning into complete mush.
'The Lucky One'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and violence
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release