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Maybe you can’t fool all the people all the time, but novelist Nicholas Sparks sure has a lot of them hoodwinked with his run of drearily predictable stories of love and fate. Producer Denise Di Novi has enjoyed similar success with big-screen adaptations of the writer’s work and the commercial winning streak will likely continue in moderate fashion with their fourth joint outing, the stubbornly soggy The Lucky One. The main point of interest here is that Zac Efron, perhaps concerned that he wasn’t getting parts that were going to Channing Tatum and Taylor Lautner, has seriously bulked up to play a somber Marine vet who returns home from the Middle East to find love at a dog kennel.
Embalming the simple and simplistic yarn in an amber glow that is all but suffocating and banishing from it any traces of humor and spontaneity, director Scott Hicks (can it have been 16 years since Shine?) serves up this treacly tale with absolutely no trace of self-consciousness about the material’s cliches or simple-mindedness; perhaps that’s as it must be, so that it may play for the intended audience. But nearly every scene is presented in a manner so as to maximize its clunkiness and conventionality, with the visual coverage thuddingly apparent in the far-too-frequent cutting among the many perspectives from which any given sequence has been shot. There’s no dramatic or visual scheme here, just random camera angles tossed and mixed.
In a war zone no bigger than a corner of a studio back lot, Efron’s Sgt. Logan Thibault survives a firefight in which others near him are killed. On the ground he later finds a photograph of a pretty young woman bearing the inscription “Keep Safe” and, once back home, resolves to track her down, whoever and wherever she is.
With scant evidence, he finds Beth (Taylor Schilling) in rural Louisiana, running a kennel and living in a spacious and charming old home with her seven-year-old son Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart) and grandma Ellie (Blythe Danner), who hires the serious young man despite Beth’s uneasiness; the man who’d been carrying her photograph was her brother. Still, with wise old Ellie gently pulling and pushing, it’s obvious Beth will soon thaw to the good soldier’s charms.
Not only that, but little Ben is in obvious need of a positive father figure, his real one, the local deputy sheriff (Jay R. Ferguson), being a good ol’ a-hole of the first order. Whereas Logan can do everything from accompanying Ben on piano at the boy’s upcoming church violin recital to deliberately losing at chess to bolster the lad’s confidence, swaggering Keith mockingly whistles the Marines’ Hymn at the soldier and uses his lawman position to threaten both his ex-wife and Logan.
Still, if it weren’t for the threat posed by the Keith, which is so broadly drawn it would have been right at home in a silent movie melodrama, the film would possess no dramatic tension at all, so bland and preordained is the progress of the central relationship. It’s all conducted in the most gradual, decorous and unsurprising manner, with Logan patiently biding his time until Beth is good and ready for the inevitable. What happens to Keith is positively Biblical, which reflects the fact that, while not specifically evangelical or pointedly religious, Sparks’ stories reflect a distinctly old-fashioned morality and mindset that clearly speak to a certain portion of the public but will seem like unshucked corn to others.
Despite their inner turmoil, the characters remain bland and superficial, never expressing gut feelings when homilies about destiny and life’s little surprises will do. Efron works within such a narrow range of stoical solidity that his real potential is impossible to gauge, while Schilling, who was the one somewhat good thing about last year’s Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 (a film conspicuously missing from her Warner Bros. presskit bio) seems constrained as if by contagion.
It’s always gorgeous and burnished gold in the Louisiana on view here, never sticky and sweaty, and none of the 20-odd bland pop songs that accompany Mark Isham‘s score evoke the slightest feel for the story’s setting.
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