It’s difficult, if not impossible, to accept that Scott Hicks, the same Scott Hicks who directed the Oscar-winning Shine sixteen years ago, also directed The Lucky One, the latest romantic drama adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Sparks, as ubiquitous a presence in romantic presence as you’ll find (sixteen novels, six of which have made the jump to the big screen) pens formulaic, easily digestible, emotion-driven novels usually, if not always, centered on star-crossed or otherwise ill-fated lovers, romantic obstacles, both persuasive and contrived, death (via terminal illness, natural disaster, or happenstance), and anywhere from downer, but cathartic endings to upbeat, positive hug-arounds. Sparks, in short, is a cottage industry unto himself. As predictable, over-obvious, and underwritten as previous adaptations of his work, The Lucky One will do little, if anything, to change or alter that based-on-reality perception for the better.

Former High School Musical star Zac Efron plays Logan Thibault, a former U.S. Marine who suffers from post-traumatic-stress disorder resulting from three consecutive tours in Iraq. Seemingly incapable of adjusting to civilian life, at least when it’s exemplified by suburban tract housing somewhere in the great state of Colorado (i.e., his sister’s home), Logan heads for the open road with his only remaining friend, a German Shepherd, and a picture of a pretty blonde woman he found in Iraq that served as a good luck charm. With only a lighthouse in the corner of the photo to guide him, Logan makes his way up and down the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast, ultimately finding the woman, Beth (Taylor Schilling), a single mother with grief problems of her own, running a family-owned kennel. In practically no time at all, Logan’s hired on to help Beth and her live-in grandmother, Ellie (Blythe Danner), run the kennel.

Logan easily charms Ellie and effortlessly befriends Beth’s eight-year-old son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart), but Beth proves slightly more difficult to convince of his noble intentions. It doesn’t help that Logan backs out repeatedly from telling Beth about the photo and what it meant to him. That open, unanswered question unsurprisingly hangs over Logan and Beth’s romantic relationship, as does, in more concrete form, Beth’s ex-husband, Keith Clayton (Jay R. Ferguson, Mad Men), a county deputy and the son of a powerful, influential judge (Adam LeFevre) not coincidentally running for mayor. In short order, we discover that Keith’s naturally or Southern-bred authoritarian tendencies led abusive behavior toward Beth, otherwise known as the proximate cause of Beth’s decision to seek out a divorce. True to abuser form, Keith sees Logan as a threat to his hoped-for, if unlikely, reconciliation with his ex-wife and his status as the only man in his son’s life.

All conflicts, no matter how generic or unpersuasively rendered by Sparks or his adapter, Will Fetters (Remember Me), converge during a proverbial rainstorm. Natural and man-made obstacles and hazards conspire to keep Logan and Beth separated, at least until the end credits roll, taking us back to the opening scene and Logan’s cliché-ridden voice-over narration. Logan mentions something about fate and destiny (Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s “Fate is what you make,” gets a virtual shout-out) before piloting a motorized boat into magic-hour oblivion. If only the audience could be as fortunate. But some moviegoers, especially moviegoers who consider themselves Sparks’ most dedicated fans, won’t have a problem with The Lucky One’s formulaic plotting, stock characters, and on-the-nose dialogue, not as long as a sunburned Zac Efron quietly emotes, when he’s emoting at all, in every other shot, the not-quite-perfect embodiment of Sparks’ wounded warrior.

To be fair, Efron’s variable, inconsistent acting almost finds a consistent tone. Minus a few, cringe-worthy scenes and an obvious dubbed-in scene, Efron manages to make Sparks’ sub-banal dialogue sound passably naturalistic. Taylor Schilling gives no more nor less than what the script calls for (e.g., initial reticence or reserve, vulnerability, and romantic abandon), more than holding her own with Efron and Blythe “Old Pro” Danner. Jay R. Ferguson does what he can with the obligatory villain role, but unfortunately, no one else gives anything approximating a memorable performance. Then again, “memorable” is the last word anyone would use to describe The Lucky One. Not, of course, that The Lucky One’s innumerable shortcomings will do anything to dissuade Sparks from writing his next, readily adaptable romantic drama.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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