Realism not for The Lucky One
A O SCOTT
“OF course they killed someone,” I overheard a young woman say to her friend after a screening of The Lucky One. “It’s a Nicholas Sparks movie.” And how. This is the seventh of Sparks’ wildly popular novels to reach the screen, and it seems useful, in the interests of scholarship, to apprehend the “Nicholas Sparks movie” as a genre unto itself, with a distinct set of rules and defining features.
So yes, someone dies. Usually more than one person, and there is also usually a serious illness. The setting is the coastal South – typically the Carolinas, this time Louisiana – a land of lazy waters, busy dialect coaches and very few nonwhite faces. A young man and a young woman will fall in love, but there will be complications: a rival with a superior pedigree, a secret, bad weather. Desperate yearning will erupt into urgent kissing, ideally in heavy rain.
All of this will be conducted in an atmosphere of intense spirituality carefully scrubbed of overt reference to any particular religion. The story, while thick with grief, emphasises redemption, and the idea of an inscrutable but ultimately benevolent destiny comes up frequently in the characters’ conversations.
The sun breaks through the clouds, you smile through your tears, and your cynicism – even the tiny voice in your head crying out, “Wait, none of this makes any sense!” – is silenced by sweet music (Mark Isham’s in The Lucky One) and swelling sentiment.
As I was saying: a Nicholas Sparks movie.
But they are hardly all identical. Sometimes the plot is a welter of chaotic incident, like in the one with Miley Cyrus and the baby sea turtles.
Sometimes – A Walk to Remember, for instance, starring Mandy Moore, the proto- Miley Cyrus – there is an emphasis on purity and simplicity. And once, so far, the synergy of cast, director and narrative has brought the genre close to the soaring, swooning glory of classic melodrama. That would be The Notebook, of course, and this is getting a little embarrassing.
Back to The Lucky One, then, which was directed, gracefully enough, by Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars) from a screenplay by Will Fetters. The film’s young man of good heart and modest background – we might call him the Gosling_ is a Marine Corps sergeant named Logan Thibault. Logan has served three tours of duty in Iraq.
This may at first seem hard to reconcile with the fact that he is played by Zac Efron, a fellow barely able to muster sufficient gravitas for High School Musical 2. But this erstwhile teenage heartthrob is reasonably credible, all things considered. His biceps are thick, his face is covered in rough stubble, and his baby blues are fixed in the thousand-yard stare of a man who has seen some terrible things.
And let us give credit to a movie that acknowledges – like another Nicholas Sparks picture, Dear John, and unlike most other commercially ambitious American films in recent years – the impact of the last 10 years of war on the lives of many young Americans.
Not with any overt polemical purpose, mind you, but as more than an incidental detail.
After a bloody firefight, Logan finds a snapshot in the rubble. The owner can’t be found, so he holds onto it and comes to believe that the pretty young woman in the picture and the message on the back (“Stay safe,” adorned with a cross) are partly responsible for his survival.
When he returns home, traumatised and lonely, he decides to seek out his guardian angel and thank her. That he finds the girl – walking from Colorado all the way to the bayou with his dog to do so – is far from the most incredible thing that happens. And it might, in another kind of movie, seem a little creepy.
Viewed from a slightly different angle, The Lucky One is about a troubled stalker in the grip of the delusion that he is linked to his prey by fate.
But Logan, haunted though he may be, is thoroughly benign, and whatever suspicions Beth (Taylor Schilling) might have when she meets him are dismissed by her wise and salty grandmother (Blythe Danner). They live, along with Beth’s adorable, curly-haired son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart) – the cute kid being another Sparksian axiom – in a big, beautiful old house and operate a dog kennel on the property.
Logan takes a job there, charms Ben and Grandma and chips away at Beth’s skepticism.
Her ex-husband (Jay R Ferguson), a sheriff’s deputy with political connections and a nasty attitude, is suspicious of this handsome newcomer and promises to make trouble for him.
Perhaps I have already said too much, since part of the experience of a Nicholas Sparks movie is encountering revelations and reversals in the plot that challenge your sense of the preposterous. That’s how destiny works: Unlikely incidents pile up, good intentions go awry, and – well, see above. If realism is what you’re after, you’ll do better at The Three Stooges. The Lucky One is where you will find death, redemption and kisses in the rain.