Sparks Minus Sparkle

Latest Nicholas Sparks romance lacks a convincing sense of swoon

You don’t need a message in a bottle to get the word out: Author Nicholas Sparks knows his audience. Conservative moviegoers (along with plenty of centrists and liberals) take to the latest Sparks adaptation, gratefully. They know they’re not going to get roughed up in terms of content, or ideologically insulted: Sparks writes best-sellers that treat military personnel with respect, churchgoing Christians likewise and red-state backdrops with fond, photogenic care.

Take The Lucky One, the seventh and latest Sparks project to hit the screen, and the sixth one likely to elicit the response, “Well, it’s no Notebook.” When the characters played by Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling consummate, discreetly, their love, the sun pours through the window in such a way that the scene could be taking place on the sun.

Efron plays Logan Thibault, a Marine whose three tours in Iraq have left him rattled, emotionally isolated and ripe for the right woman to come along. In the prologue, following a bloody ambush during a night raid, Logan finds a snapshot of a smiling woman in the rubble. He keeps the photo safe from harm, and the photo apparently does likewise; it’s his lucky charm, his guardian angel.

Back home months later, Logan sets out on foot from Colorado to Louisiana with his dog, Zeus, in search of the woman in the photo. Schilling plays the woman, Beth, whose brother was killed in the raid. She works in a suspiciously prosperous dog kennel with her grandmother (Blythe Danner, a touch of class) and her chess-playing preteen son (Riley Thomas Stewart). Logan shows up and takes a conveniently unfilled job as handyman and all-around hunky helper. Beth’s ex (Jay R. Ferguson) is a bullying, abusive officer of the law, given to stalking Beth, sneering at their son’s unathletic interests and eyeing “soldier boy” Logan as threat No. 1.

A Sparks tale generally requires a massive leap of faith. Here, it’s a good old-fashioned delayed secret: Logan conceals what has brought him to her, i.e., the photo found near her brother’s body. Why? “I could never find the words,” he says. I’ll have to remember that one.

As in movies as disparate as Shane and Drive, The Lucky One provides lonely mother and vulnerable child with handy surrogate father, a sensitive warrior. Efron does well enough with the leading part, although every time the camera goes in for a wordless, backlit close-up, he seems to turn into a poster of himself, without much in the way of animating spark. With Schilling, it’s the opposite: She’s going for spunky and vibrant, but it comes off as twitchy and manic. Directed for maximum postcard prettiness by Scott Hicks, the film proceeds in fits and starts, with a nervous editing rhythm (Scott Gray’s the credited editor). Partly that’s deliberate; with the stalker ex in the patrol car, scowling all the time, nobody can fully relax. But when Beth rages against the loss of her brother, tears apart a garden wall, then spills her guts to the ever-present Logan, there’s barely a second between the two dramatic beats.

So, it’s no Notebook, the soft-serve Sparks adaptation that everybody seems to like best, owing to the chemistry of its stars, Rachel McAdams and Ryan “It’s a Period Picture, But I’m Not Going to Pretend It Is” Gosling. The leads’ chemistry in The Lucky One is more theoretical than actual. Still, the sunsets and sunrises and sunbeams through the windowpanes fall easily on the eyes.

The Lucky One (PG-13) ★★☆☆☆

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