The Lucky One

There are people (mostly young men) whose knee-jerk response to Zac Efron is that he’s a terrible actor whose movies are all terrible — but who feel that way not because they’ve seen and disliked anything he’s done but because he was in the “High School Musical” films that little girls liked. That attitude is immature, obviously, and most people grow out of it eventually. But I have to say, Efron doesn’t do himself any favors starring in stuff like “The Lucky One.” It’s exactly the kind of sappy hogwash that his detractors think is the only thing he’s capable of doing.

It’s based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, though you may have surmised that from my use of the phrase “sappy hogwash.” (If anyone can prevent Efron from climbing out of the teeny-bopper ghetto, it’s this guy.) Efron plays Logan, a shellshocked Marine in Iraq who sees a discarded photograph lying in some rubble, walks over to pick it up, and is thus saved when a bomb goes off right where he’d been standing. After his tour of duty, suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and with nothing else in his life to keep him grounded, he sets out to find the stranger in the picture. He feels a connection. He wants to thank her for inadvertently saving his life.

Fortunately for our story, the stranger in the picture happens to be an attractive single woman in Logan’s approximate age group. This would have been a very different movie indeed if Logan’s life had been saved by a snapshot of a grizzled homeless man, or by a picture of a burrito from a magazine ad. Logan uses contextual clues to figure out where the photo was taken (the movie spends 11-12 seconds on this sleuthing), determines it was a small town in Louisiana, then walks there. From Colorado. Why not drive or take a bus? Because this method allows him to seem more sensitive and wounded by walking forlornly on the side of the road like David Banner at the end of every episode of “The Incredible Hulk.”

The girl in the picture is Beth (Taylor Schilling), a single mom who runs a dog kennel with her sassy grandmother, Ellie (Blythe Danner). Beth’s son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart), not quite 8 years old, is the product of her failed marriage to Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), her high school sweetheart who’s now a sheriff’s deputy in this quaint little bayou dump. When Logan shows up, he’s too tongue-tied to say the one thing he came here to say — THE ONE THING HE CAME HERE TO SAY! — and instead lets Beth assume he’s just some stranger applying for a job. So now he has a job at Beth’s kennel, hooray.

It wouldn’t have been hard. It wouldn’t have even seemed that weird to Beth. Watch, I’ll show you.

“Hi, my name is Logan. We don’t know each other, but when I was a Marine in Iraq I happened to see something on the ground that caught my attention, and when I walked over to pick it up a bomb went off behind me, right where I’d been standing. The thing on the ground turned out to be this picture of you. So in a crazy, coincidental way, you kind of saved my life, and I just wanted to say thank you.”

Then Beth would have told Logan about her brother, who was also a Marine in Iraq, whose snapshot this must have been. It must have fallen out of his pocket at some point before he was killed. “Wow, Logan, thank you for bringing it back to me. Thank you for helping me reconnect with my dead brother.” And then we could have had an unusual story about these two damaged souls brought together by fate, who maybe fall in love or whatever.

But no, instead it’s the same old romantic-drama formula where one person has a Big Secret and we’re just waiting for the other person to find out about it so she can feel angry and betrayed and then get over it and forgive him in time for the finale. Logan puts the photo under a book on his dresser, to make it easier for someone to stumble upon it accidentally. Ugh.

Meanwhile, Logan and Beth start to fall in love. This upsets Keith, a laughably bad character who’s been written to be a jerk in every possible way. He’s jealous of any man who gets close to his ex-wife; he uses his power as a cop to harass people; he openly mocks his 8-year-old son for playing the violin; he threatens to sue for custody if Beth dates anyone he doesn’t like. At one point he gets really drunk — I’m not making this up — and pulls a gun on Logan’s dog.

Right. It’s that kind of movie (the dumb kind). It gets dumber, though. Maybe you’re wondering about when Beth inevitably finds out that Logan ISN’T just some random drifter who walked here from Colorado to apply for a job at her kennel, and that in fact he has had her picture all along. You know she has to get upset. But maybe you’re wondering … why, exactly. Why is she angry? Logan never lied to her. Logan didn’t pretend to be anything he wasn’t. He should have told her right off the bat that he’d found her picture, etc., etc., instead of being a mealy-mouthed imbecile. But his failure to do so isn’t some huge violation of trust.

So why does Beth get mad? Well, because the girl is supposed to get mad at the sensitive boy near the end of the movie, so that the audience can feel bad for the sensitive boy and think, “Aww! He was just bein’ sensitive!”

This brings us to what I should, in fairness, say about the film’s positive attributes. As a plausible story with believable characters and authentic emotions, it’s worthless. But as a thing designed to push emotional buttons on teenage girls, it works reasonably well, I guess. It’s Efron playing to his base, bringing out his greatest hits and sleepwalking through his performance. He can almost certainly do better than this. But if this is the only thing he wants to do, well, there’s apparently no shortage of opportunities to do it.

(P.S. The Louisiana scenery is lovely. It is always nice to see Blythe Danner. The director, Scott Hicks, also made “Shine,” which was a good movie. The end.)

D+ (1 hr., 41 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some moderate sexuality, brief war violence.)