The world of Nicholas Sparks is not one of my preferred cinematic vacation spots. I’ll admit this up front, and concede that the author has absolutely perfected this white-washed but utterly contrived universe as a safe haven for his hungry fans. If you are wary of clichés and emotional manipulation that suck away at the tears like an industrial-strength vacuum, then this ill-fitting estrogen escapism isn’tgoing to cut it, regardless of your sex.
You know the place, even if you are loathe to admit it. The sun shines through the trees like a poet’s paintbrush, draping itself across earnest, doting hunks admiring their soulful, pouting women who stand trembling with resistant ardor on the sidelines. There’s no gray area in Sparkstown, and all lovers are pure of heart, although their devotion is often undone by misunderstanding and circumstance that wouldn’t stymie your average high-school student. Villainy in this land has been reduced to easy containers that hold nothing else; faceless war-time opponents and , abusive, stalker boyfriends are straw-men easily lined up for a quick baseball bat takedown. When those fail it’s time to bring in the Four Horseman; Cancer, Alzheimers, Car Accident and Death by Sleep. No one acts like real people here, because the fantasy would crumble quicker than Pleasantville.
With the right director and actors onscreen, Sparks does become a translatable quantity that can work at the basic level of good old-fashioned tearjerker. Say what you will about The Notebook, but the convictions of Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling sell the illusion just long enough for the filmmakers to sneak up and remove your ten bucks with only a bemused smile proffered on your part. The Lucky One isn’t half as lucky as all that. Although exponentially better than the grating and insincere Last Song, which featured Miley Cyrus sparring with Greg Kinnear and trying to vainly hatch baby sea turtles, One isn’t a movie so much as a Hallmark calendar flipped at rapid pace to simulate momentum.
I honestly have nothing against Zac Efron, who seems to be working hard to shrug off the vestiges of High School Musical with solid work in films like Me and Orson Welles. Here though, he’s lost at sea as Logan Thibault, a war-scarred Marine whose three tours in Iraq have left him drifting across the U.S. with a young girl’s photo, the words ‘stay safe’ scrawled on the back serving as a good-luck charm and improbable promise. He’s anxious to discover the name behind the face he believes protected him in those tumultuous days. In proper Sparks fashion he’s set out from Colorado for Louisiana with only his feet and faithful dog Zeus to guide his way. Efron exists here only as breathing scenery employed to make soccer moms temporarily forget about pasty Ed Cullen. He’s got none of the poise or solidarity that would come with a Marine sergeant position, and his bid for emotional fragility as a result of in-theater combat is also an empty crock. He’s too stiff, too unsure and too reserved to light-up the screen with any heat and his PTSD vanishes once the audience get the point he’s struggling with it.
Which doesn’t help much when dealing with the hyperactive, erratically aimed missle that is Taylor Schilling, playing Beth, the girl in the photo. Logan shows up, and in a move that goes further than my suspension of disbelief, doesn’t tell Beth what really brought him here. Instead he’s signed up to work as a handyman on her property, and the unspoken agreement seems to be he won’t wear a shirt while doing it. And that Beth, she needs all the help she can get; she’s a conveniently single mom with a precocious son, a wise grandmother ( a welcome Bythe Danner) and an abusive ex who happens to also be the town sherrif. Schilling dives right in with a frazzling intensity that has nowhere to go but hokey. Whether she’s accosting Logan for a bit of frolic in the shower or whimpering on about the misdeeds of her ex-husband, Schilling has the dial set to 11 and it’s broken. With Efron on Calvin Klein auto-pilot, this mismatched couple are a sight to see; through Scott Hick’s ultra-gauzy, eternally dusky lens it plays like the tortoise and the hare as painted by Thomas Kincaide.
Hicks, the director of the far superior Shine and Snow Falling on Cedars is sadly relegated to visually airbrushing away the story and character inconsistencies. He can’t. Sparks movies are very much like first dates; so what if the food comes a little late, the waiter is a bit rude, or your steak a little too done if the company is good, the conversation interesting, and sparks are flying in the air? By that same token, an awkward and clunky pairing with no chemistry, nothing to say and lack of common ground can take the wind out of even the grandest surroundings. Unfortunately, Hicks is event coordinator for one of the bad ones, and watching him try to rescue it would be embarrassing if it too, weren’t so terribly routine.