Tepid "Lucky One" soggier than a wet T-shirt

The Lucky One (2012)
101 min., rated PG-13.

"The Lucky One" is the seventh adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, and it's neither the best nor the worst in his canon of treacly sudsers and tragic weepies. These films lay their intentions on the table without shame: they want to romance us and have our hankies soaked before the end credits start rolling. In a way, Sparks' stories are comfort food because we know what we're going to get. Sun-dappled locale, check. A man and woman (either young or old will apply) gazing into each other's eyes, check. An 11th-hour tragedy, check. However, even a modicum of creativity is required when a formula is just repackaged. With "The Lucky One," luck has run out for Sparks this time as his recipe has grown soggy, long in the tooth, and hopelessly predictable. If the film were a maple tree, you could tap it for all the syrup and make waffles for everyone! 

Serving his first tour in Iraq, Marine soldier Logan (Zac Efron) finds a photo of a beautiful, blonde woman. Picking it up in the rubble actually saves him from a blast that few soldiers survive. Finding no owner of the picture, Logan calls her his "guardian angel." Eight months later after his third tour, he returns to his sister's home in Colorado, but can't shake his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (He jumps at the loud sounds of shoot 'em up video games and actually chokes his ignorant nephew who takes him off guard in waking him up.) Tracing the woman in the picture to Hamden, Louisiana, Logan packs up, with his well-trained German Shepherd in tow, and travels on foot to pay his debt. The woman's name is Beth Green (Taylor Schilling), a single mom and part-time teacher working at a dog kennel with her nana, Ellie (Blythe Danner). Logan tries telling her why he really walked all this way, but she thinks he's applying for the kennel's "Help Wanted" ad. After getting the job, he bonds with Beth's son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart), and bumps heads with her jealous, bullying ex-husband, Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), also the local police deputy. Then Beth starts falling for Logan with the burning passion of a thousand suns, but will his secret tear them apart? Cue The Fake Break-up.

Having crafted emotional pictures such as 1996's Oscar-nominated "Shine" and 2001's "Hearts in Atlantis," director Scott Hicks can only do so much. He's made sure the film is consistently bathed in warm, golden light from the heavens and that Alar Kivilo's gorgeous cinematography makes us want to book a vacation to Louisiana for some homemade jambalaya. But it's all in the storytelling, and screenwriter Will Fetters (2010's "Remember Me") stringently adheres to a Harlequin romance formula in adapting Sparks' novel. Earnest sentiment is fine, but here, the plot complications are clichés and the dramatic tension is eye-rollingly forced. When Logan and Beth aren't swooning over each other and making whoopee in Logan's shack, the film seems to only exist for its contrived plot mechanics and melodrama. On more than a few occasions, Logan tries coming clean to Beth about the photo, but it doesn't come out until right before The Tragic Climax. So we have a story supposedly about fate and destiny that's stretched thin because its lead character won't communicate and then solely relies on said climax to wrap everything up. When a literal storm hits, you can bet that something tragic will happen. The Keith caricature nearly sinks the whole film. No fault of Ferguson, who does his job of playing suspect and loathsome with a pantomime of glaring looks. But the actor might as well be wearing a sign, reading "Villain," and given a mustache to twirl. He's a stock obstacle for Logan and Beth. Though Keith is established as the angry son of a wealthy politician with high expectations, and there's an attempt in a church-set scene to give him some sense of humanity, the jealousy gets turned right back on and he remains a bully. There's no shading or grey area. White is good and black is bad, and that's just not that interesting. 

Like fellow heartthrob Channing Tatum proving he was more than a G.I. Joe, Efron is no longer that golden boy from "High School Musical." He's a hunky romance-novel leading man whose Logan reads philosophy, plays beautiful hymns on the piano, and makes a good chess competitor. While Logan seems like a pretty handy, well-rounded guy that you'd be lucky to have around the house (and could gawk at from the window as he's lifting heavy bags of dog food), there's no real character arc that makes the 101 minutes terribly worthwhile. Relative newcomer Schilling (from last year's bomb "Atlas Shrugged") is photogenic and lovely, and does some nice work as Beth. She's spunky and sympathetic enough as a single parent dealing with her own grief that revisits when Logan rolls in. Though restrained for its PG-13 rating, Logan and Beth's amorous romantic tryst in the shower is steamy and sexy, and the actors look good in wet clothes that don't stay on for long. They have some chemistry, but nothing more than the physical kind. Danner is always a welcome presence, here as Beth's spry grandma, and Stewart is cute without all the kid-actor mugging as Beth's self-conscious son.

There has been exactly one effective screen adaptation from Sparks' material, and that's 2004's unabashedly romantic and old-fashioned "The Notebook." Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams actually cooked up palpable fireworks and we cared about their story, which didn't always travel in expected directions. A few more adaptations were watchable (2002's "A Walk to Remember" and 2010's "The Last Song"), and the rest largely forgettable and mediocre schmaltz-fests (1999's "Message in a Bottle," 2008's "Nights in Rodanthe," and 2010's "Dear John"). Generic enough that it feels like an assembly-line product, "The Lucky One" can be lumped into the latter group. It's an easy sit that's even easier to forget, but not deserving of vehement hatred either.