In “The Lucky One,” another movie taken from a Nicholas Sparks novel, Zac Efron plays Logan Thibault, a Marine who served in Iraq and is convinced that he was kept alive with the help of a photo he happened upon after the soldier carrying it was killed. Logan is so grateful that, upon returning home, he walks from Colorado to Louisiana, where he finds Beth Clayton (Taylor Schilling), the blonde in the photo, wearing denim shorts, a linen blouse, and one of those crinkly smiles women wear in Tommy Hilfiger ads.
Beth’s life epitomizes everything annoying about the Nicholas Sparks experience (or at least the version presented by the screenwriter Will Fetters and the director Scott Hicks). She doesn’t work in an office park or at Staples. She doesn’t drive for UPS or file legal briefs. Beth runs a kennel. With her tiny son. And her grandmother (Blythe Danner, who should never be called “Nana” even if it’s true). Schilling isn’t much of a performer, not here, anyway. She’s not required to be. Those shorts and shirts and teeth go nicely with her halo. Which all goes perfectly with Efron’s tight T-shirts and stubble that says “George Michael was here.” No one’s trying to make things hard for us — or for her.
Oh, their love among the canines arrives at its obstacles. Beth, for instance, doesn’t know that the photo led Logan to her. But is that a big deal? We know who the guy in the photo is, and what young, dog-loving single mom wouldn’t be flattered to learn that she was a pretty Marine’s good luck charm? Only a single mom in a movie that needs to last longer than 23 minutes.
Beth also has an ex-husband named Keith (Jay R. Ferguson). Keith’s a dullard, a drunk, and a man so dumb he appears to be serious about mispronouncing Logan’s surname – in Louisiana! Keith is the local sheriff (he’s onto you, Logan), a politician’s son, and the kind of guy called upon, in a movie like this, to lock eyes with the hero for enough seconds to make you wonder whether the hate Keith claims to feel for Logan is really something else altogether. (Logan, he’s into you, too.)
Ferguson also plays a big, better dressed lug on “Mad Men.” Here he does what he can with a part meant to bring out the valor in the hero. But there’s something hypo-heroic about Zac Efron. Of course, he plays the Marine Who Didn’t Die. He’s too scrumptious for suffering. “The Lucky One” opens with his voice-over. “You know, some things can change your life,” he says. And somewhere between that comma and “some thing” you can feel him toss his hair.
Schilling, meanwhile, has to embarrass herself by saying the words “jambalaya” and “Voltaire” and by pretending to be close to orgasm while standing at a kitchen sink and watching Efron sling heavy sacks in the cab of a truck. After Danner catches her drooling, she does more fumbling around. Later, when it’s time, figuratively, to fog some windows, Schilling has to become the sort of costar eager to be pinned to the wall of an outdoor shower stall. By Zac Efron. Needless to say there are many tweenagers who would dump their best friends for the opportunity to stand in Schilling’s shorts.
But that’s what’s unfortunate about her: She is one of a few actors in a movie or on TV with a woman’s carriage, and here she’s a surrogate for millions of girls. As sex education goes, it’s a terrible development. Seeing her and Efron fumble at each other is like watching a stick of butter and a bag of flour not turn into a cake.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_mor