Each week, Bro Jackson’s film nerds defend a movie that generally sucks.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 20%
Critical Consensus: While it provides the requisite amount of escapist melodrama, “The Lucky One” ultimately relies on too many schmaltzy clichés to appeal to anyone not already familiar with the Nicholas Sparks formula.
I have a confession to make: I like most Sparks adaptations. I never saw “Nights in Rodanthe” or “Safe Haven,” and I’ve been assured they are terrible. However, I appreciate all the others for their earnestness and sincerity. They traffic in the same tropes and are usually pretty decently cast. The favored touchstones of late include: “restoring houses,” “upper crust entitled pricks,” “brooding, ultra-sensitive loners,” and “war vets,” while “terminal diseases” recedes into the background a little. “The Lucky One” is guilty of all of these things, but it also bears the distinction of being the one that gets the best and most sincere performances from its cast since “Message In A Bottle.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but “The Lucky One” lives and dies by the performances of Taylor Schilling and Zac Efron, who are natural, unassuming people with a natural, unassuming chemistry. That is until the chemistry gets as red hot as PG-13 will allow. The two meet when Efron’s Iraq war vet, Logan, walks from Colorado to Louisiana in search of Beth (“Orange is the New Black’s” Schilling), the woman in a found photo, who he believes acted as his de facto guardian angel. Once he arrives on the scene, Logan takes one look at Beth, she takes one look at him and they misunderstand each other just enough that he ends up working at her dog kennel instead of confessing the truth behind his visit. Without this misunderstanding there is no film, and without this misunderstanding one is trying to gloss over a simple universal truth— Schilling is pretty enough to make you lose your goddamn head. If you don’t believe me, ask her pain in the ass ex-husband, Keith (he pulls a gun on her boyfriend and grabs her likes he’s got a nice dark corner with her name on it).
Efron doesn’t appear to be cashing in on any of the things that made him famous. He sinks into the role, gets a feel for the natural rhythm of the character and turns on the charm in a way that isn’t knowing or smirky. He actually evokes Kevin Costner in how folksy he makes the character, but also in how much he conveys the damaged loner core. It is a quiet performance and Efron’s trepidatious approach really sells the idea of a guy who finds life after the war a little bit unreal. He’s shocked to discover that the greatest trauma you suffer is the one you survive. I don’t intend to make the character sound off-putting; it’s just the way I read him.
Schilling is also great–the best cast female in a Sparks adaptation since Robin Wright. She’s easy on the eyes from the moment she is introduced. She’s got her head just above water and sometimes you can see the strain of her smile. You can’t help but wonder if there’s a tragedy within her that’s worthy of such a sad, beautiful smile. Schilling really gets to demonstrate the full range of her abilities in a handful of scenes. In one, she reminisces about the time she and her brother built a garden wall and he sealed in one of her books. She laughs about it, big and unrestrained but it quickly gives way to these wracking emotional sobs. It feels like such a complete surrender to the inner life of a character that it instantly becomes a shame that more people don’t know who Taylor Schilling is. The next scene involves her tiring of her ex-husband’s threats to seek full custody of their son. In a much more diplomatic fashion than most would be capable of, she tells him to get bent and walks away with a smile on her face. In the next scene, Beth and Logan finally succumb to the passionate, writhing, soaking wet demands of congress with one’s clothes on. Frankly, it’s as hot as anything in this life or any other that can’t be dirty can probably get.
The longer I talk about Taylor Schilling, the more convinced I become that I need to wrap this up and get to work on a sonnet. It’ll probably be about her legs.
One can bemoan the average Nicholas Sparks adaptation for any number of reasons, most of them involving the use/overuse of clichés and motifs, but if anyone is halfway honest with themselves then they will have to admit that the chemistry on display between the leads in “The Lucky One” is superior. That not only have Efron and Schilling succeeded in making us believe them as a couple, but they’ve found the soul of these particular characters. It’s one of the strongest examples of why we defend these so called bad movies and why, when the evidence is all right there, the defense rests.