Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Just His Luck: THE LUCKY ONE

By now, after the likes of The Notebook, Dear John, The Last Song, and more, the ingredients needed for making a Nicolas Sparks adaptation are awfully predictable. You need sun-dappled Southern beaches prone to thematically relevant rainstorms. You need an earnest, but troubled young man and a beautiful, suffering young woman. You need a wise, loving, but imperfect parental figure and a precocious little kid. All of the above must have somewhat tragic backstories and be prone to misunderstandings. The plot needs miscommunications and romantic obstacles and a conclusion that’s deeply romantic with moldy notes of melancholy. Death of a major minor character is optional but encouraged. The ingredients are then tossed in a pot (along with corn and cheese) and cooked until they’re a good, thick mush.

The newest iteration is The Lucky One. The earnest, troubled young man is Zac Efron. He plays a Marine who finds a picture in the Iraqi desert and, while he walks over to pick it up, narrowly escapes a deadly explosion The picture shows a good-looking blonde (Taylor Schilling) smiling in front of a lighthouse. He decides it’s a good luck charm. When his tours of duty are over, he heads back to the States, determined to find the woman in the picture and thank her in person. If it weren’t for that photo, he’d surely be dead.

He finds her rather quickly upon his arrival in a small, rural Louisiana town. She owns, works and lives at a dog shelter with her loving and supportive grandmother (Blythe Danner, underused here) and talented, but self-conscious young son (Riley Thomas Stewart).  But, for reasons of drawing this thing out to feature length, Efron can’t bring himself to tell them why he’s arrived. Instead, the ex-Marine gets hired to help out, which leads to several scenes of Efron moping about while starting a rusty tractor, hammering a broken gutter back into place, and dragging away fallen branches. You see, he’s going to fix their lives. It’s a metaphor. Get it?

The adaption by Will Fetters doesn’t think you will. In fact, the script is so simple-minded that it thinks incident will pass for plot and arbitrary events will pass for characterization. It’s a movie that relies on characters not telling each other important information and, when presented with new revelations, they will assume the worst about each other. And then, when things are finally straightened out, when characters actually open up to each other, the very important conflicts just fizzle out as if they never were a problem at all. But we just spent an hour or whatever watching characters dance around these problems, fretting over what amounts to nothing. From the first shot they share, it’s achingly obvious that Efron and Schilling will fall in love and live happily ever after. The only convincing reason to delay the obvious with unbelievable obstacles is to make sure the story takes 100 minutes to tell.

Take the character of the woman’s ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson), for example. He’s comically threatening with a bunch of traits that make it seem like he was created from a checklist of nasty clich├ęs. He’s an abusive, alcoholic, jealous, condescending cop with high-level connections within the local government. He’s not much of a character beyond a collection of traits targeted to provide maximum disruption in what would otherwise be a plot almost entirely without conflict. He’s a distraction; the only purpose he serves is, like Efron’s decision not to reveal his lucky charm, simply a way to keep the movie going. When the ex-husband has finally outlived his purpose in the plot, he’s written out in a comically overwrought and underwritten way that’s supposed to be a Big Moment, but is in fact just an atonal cop out.

The whole endeavor is directed by Scott Hicks, a filmmaker who has, in the past, helmed glossy prestige projects, adaptations of true stories (Shine and The Boys Are Back) and novels (Snow Falling on Cedars and Hearts in Atlantis). He doesn’t (and probably couldn’t) do much with the material besides keeping things moving and looking competent on a technical level. The cast hardly elevates things either. Efron has little experience in carrying a drama and it shows. He’s never convincing as an ex-Marine and his way of projecting inner turmoil is by keeping his face as still and expressionless as possible. Still, he’s far better here than in Charlie St. Cloud, that drippy movie from a few years ago about a kid who plays catch with the ghost of his dead little brother. Schilling, for her part, has a scene where she laughs and cries at the same time, which, if nothing else, proves that her scary, emotionless lead performance in the worst movie of last year, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, was in all likelihood a purposeful decision to help reveal the lunacy of that project from within it.

But maybe the filmmakers didn’t want me sitting there thinking about even worse movies that Efron and Schilling have made. They probably weren’t expecting me to sit there thinking about much at all beyond caring about the characters and their situations. But I just wasn’t invested in anything that was happening on screen. Even when Efron and Schilling break their long, dull flirtation with a heavy-duty, fully-clothed make-out scene under an outdoor shower, it plays less like an expression of romantic tension, and more like another box to be checked. The movie’s so thin, programmatic and uneventful that I had difficulty remembering what happened in it even minutes after it was over.

1 comment:

  1. This movie was total crap because it tried so hard to make us care for these characters and their love, that it just ended up being irritating as hell. Efron and Schilling do try but come on, there is only so much one person can do with a Nicholas Sparks adaptation! Good review.