Silver Screen: The Lucky One *1/2

Silver Screen: The Lucky One  *1/2
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It's nearly impossible not the ponder the irony of the title if you have the misfortune of sitting t
Bryan Miller

It's nearly impossible not the ponder the irony of the title if you have the misfortune of sitting through The Lucky One, the latest romance-weepie from bestselling one-trick pony Nicholas Sparks. Sparks is a kind of write-by-numbers author whose frequently adapted work often incorporates the same tropes into already predictable romance storylines: The characters always live near water in southern locales, take lots of boat rides, and are afflicted by various terminal illnesses.

It's actually easiest to remember Nicholas Sparks movies by the illnesses. The Notebook is the Alzheimer's movie, while Dear John sports a double-bill of autism and cancer. A Walk to Remember and The Last Song both stick to just plain ol' cancer, but you can distinguish those because A Walk to Remember features cancer of the protagonist, while The Last Song is one of Sparks's dead-parent plots. Parents dramatically die not just in The Last Song, but in Dear John and Nights in Rodanthe, the latter of which gets experimental by jettisoning the tumors in favor of death by mudslide.

So when the female lead's beloved grandmother, played by the lively Blythe Danner, is introduced getting winded while doing chores and being reminded to take her medication, it seems like time to go casket shopping for sure. Stunningly, however, grandma lives through the entire movie.

The rest, however, is pretty pro forma. Like so many Sparks heroines before her, The Lucky One's Beth (Taylor Schilling) is a feisty but fragile southern lady with a love of nurturing animals. (If you're keeping score at home, The Last Song features sea-turtle rescues, while Dear John's lady wanted to open a therapeutic horse-riding camp.) Beth runs a kennel and dog-training service, and she assumes when stranger Logan (Zac Efron) shows up he must be looking for a job.

What Beth doesn't know is that Logan is a war veteran who found a picture of an anonymous girl in the sand just before a firefight. He came to believe that her picture was his lucky charm and helped him survive the war, so using clues from the photo he tracked the girl down-- to the kennel, of course. But Beth is hounded by her ex-husband, an abusive cop (Jay R. Ferguson) who repeatedly threatens to use his influence to take full custody of their precocious son (Riley Thomas Stewart).

Just because Danner's character makes it through the movie without a hospital visit doesn't mean The Lucky One doesn't feature plenty of tragedy. Not only is Beth grieving for her brother, killed during a mysterious incident while serving in the Marines, she also lost both of her parents to a car accident at a young age. Later in the film, Sparks will engineer his most awesomely bizarre accident yet when he adds death by treehouse to his repertoire.

The Lucky One features a pretty decent premise for a romance. Logan's intense connection to total stranger Beth via a single photo is just sappy enough to work, but Sparks keeps piling on the melodrama until it starts to curdle into unintentional comedy. Efron anchors the film nicely; he's more adept with comedy than drama, but he's perhaps the most charismatic and able of the current crop of young dreamboats. Schilling is totally overmatched and never manages to do much more than be a clotheshorse for a lot of gauzy white fabrics. Acclaimed director turned who-is-that Scott Hicks (Shine and Snow Falling on Cedars, but then Hearts in Atlantis, No Reservations, and The Boys Are Back) dutifully bathes the rustic southern houses and the chipping paint on old boats in hazy sunlight, capturing pretty much the same aesthetic for which all the Sparks material begs. There must be a checklist somewhere.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.