Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Lucky One Leaves Viewers Not So Lucky, Unless Viewers Happen To Be Young Females

In The Lucky One, Zac Efron plays a Marine who decides to
find the woman pictured in a photograph he found in Iraq.
A movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book starring Zac Efron.

That’s all you need to know about The Lucky One. The plot, other cast members, the script, and the director are all superfluous. The Sparks factor promises a weepy melodrama with moody photography of a picturesque southern locale, a saccharine score, cheesy dialogue, and some sensual kissing under falling water (usually rain, but here a shower head). 

Meanwhile, the casting of Efron ensures females will show up to this thing, because if there’s one constant in these Sparks adaptations, it’s that the ones that skew younger are more profitable, especially if there’s a rising heart throb at the center of the action.*
* First weekend box office results strengthen this dictum. The movie opened to $22.5 million last weekend, making it the second-best start for a Sparks movie. Oh, and the audience was 76 percent female.
Having said all of that, it’s my goal to write reviews of everything I see from now on, and so I’m going to assess The Lucky One even if it is pointless to do so.

Efron (I’m not even bothering with character names here) stars as a Marine who finds a picture of a woman (Taylor Schilling) that becomes his good luck charm. Right out of the gate, the picture saves his life (immediately after he walks over to pick it up, the spot where he was standing gets bombed), and we’re told it continues to do so throughout the remainder of his third and final tour.

Upon returning to America, Efron briefly stays in Colorado with his sister’s family but has trouble fitting in due to post-traumatic stress (which never really rears its head again). He does stay long enough to pick up his well-trained dog and to inexplicably discover the picture was taken in North Carolina simply by Googling pictures of lighthouses (there’s a lighthouse in the picture, you see).

Deciding he needs to express his thanks to his mystery woman, Efron and his dog walk to North Carolina. From Colorado. Yes, you read that right. He walks 1,500 miles, because, as we’re told later, he likes to walk. The implication: this is one deep and reflective Marine.

When he finally tracks Schilling down, Efron doesn’t tell her why he’s there, because it’s just too hard. Plus, she already thinks he’s there simply to apply for a job at the kennel she runs, so why not just apply and see what comes of it, you know?
Efron Googles lighthouses.

Schilling proves wary of Efron at first. He’s a marine, and she has weird feelings about soldiers because her brother died in combat. But eventually, he wins her over, because he’s just so good with her son, not to mention the fact that he looks like Efron and her sassy grandma (Blythe Danner) thinks he’s a nice young man. Eventually, Efron wears Schilling down, and they get to kissing underneath that shower head I mentioned before, which, to be clear, is in a barn where they ultimately have PG-13 barn sex.

But there’s also a jealous ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson) who happens to be a cop and the mayor’s son, which means he can really raise some shit if he wants to. And of course, there’s the secret Efron has hanging over his head, which is sort of reminiscent of the secret Ben Affleck had hanging over his head in Bounce. Except in that movie the stakes were actually high, because Affleck was sort of to blame for the death of Gwyneth Paltrow’s husband, as opposed to just being a guy who found a picture that a girl’s brother dropped before dying.**
** I’m not sure if the movie intends to suggest if he hadn’t dropped the picture, the brother might not have died. But Schilling does tell Efron it was meant to be her bro’s good luck charm not his, and so there is that sense, which I found amusing, particularly because it implies she believes a picture of her truly does ward off death.

I know that’s a long synopsis for such a mediocre movie, but I wanted to convey how generic and stupid the whole thing is. Having gotten that out of the way, I should say that the film (outside of the crazy ex-husband stuff, most of which I’ve left unexplained because those developments add a level of WTF enjoyment to the film) is pleasant enough, because Efron*** and Schilling have a nice tender chemistry that the film thankfully takes time to let breathe and develop.
*** Efron gets a lot of shit, but I’ve found him to be an amiable presence in Hairspray and 17 Again, and here he does a nice job of downplaying his characteristic enthusiasm to solid effect. I doubt he will rise from his Teen Beat beginnings to become the next Depp or DiCaprio, but he’s not a bad actor, and I am liking his choices of late. Sparks movies have proven successful stepping stones for Ryan Gosling and Channing Tatum (two actors who have a ton of heat right now), and he has a lead role in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, which looks promising.
However, the whole thing is mired by the same smaltz that always plagues these Sparks movies. Crackling chemistry and a poignant old people ending elevated The Notebook a bit, but all of the Sparks film adaptations have a factory-produced feeling to them. And the crazy thing is, that’s not even a knock on Sparks. It’s simply truth as indicated to me by Sparks himself. Let me explain:

I met Sparks while on a 2008 Habitat for Humanity trip to his hometown of New Bern, North Carolina. A few of us volunteers were brought to speak at The Epiphany School, a very cool and advanced college-preparatory school the Sparks developed and built for the children of New Bern (including his own).

As the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Sparks gave my group a tour of the school, and made it clear his philanthropic efforts were his true passion, while writing was just a job.

Nevertheless, I asked Sparks about his writing process, and what he described basically sounded liked a formulaic plot aggregator. It went something like this (please understand this not actually a quote, but rather the general impression Sparks projected):
"Well, when I write I think of what I wrote last. If I wrote about a 40 year-old guy trying to move on from a failed relationship, I don’t want to do that again, it wouldn’t be fresh. Instead, I focus on a young woman who’s experiencing love for the first time. And so, that’s how I do it. I move the pieces around.”
As someone who takes literature and film pretty seriously, this type of process disheartens me, and makes assessing works like The Lucky Ones difficult. Essentially, The Lucky One is similar to Dear John in that it focuses on a young soldier in love; but wait, here’s the difference – this time war doesn’t separate our hero from his beloved, it brings him to her. And the guy in the middle – he’s not a nice guy, but a bad guy. And the old person eccentric – it’s not an Asperger’s-afflicted dad, it’s a wise-cracking grandma. Just take the general formula and move the pieces around.
It's almost "Gumpian" how much this guy walks.

Anyway, the truth is that plenty of people like their entertainment as formulaic as possible. It’s why TV shows like the Hawaii Five-O remake and Mike and Molly succeed, while those like The Wire and Community struggle to find an audience. Sparks is selling comfort food, and truth be told, I don’t begrudge him his success. He’s found a formula that works, and it makes him a lot of money that allows him to do the types of things he’s passionate about. That’s a pretty cool story about a pretty awesome guy.

None of that makes me like his stories any more – if anything it probably makes me more critical of them. But in the end, The Lucky One delivers the same relative quality of most of Sparks’ better adaptations (a step below The Notebook, but right on par with the likes of Dear John and Message in a Bottle). That means it is sure to make his core demographic very happy, and it’s hard to deny there’s something of value in that.