"The Lucky One" is yet another adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, so you know exactly what you're getting walking into this thing. It's predictable and schmaltzy and sappy and smothered with voiceover that explains the film's already none-too-subtle themes of destiny and fate and second chances.
And yet ... and yet.
In the hands of "Shine" director Scott Hicks, it does what it needs to do to please its target audience with a certain tasteful artfulness and the comforting familiarity of a 1950s melodrama. It's utterly forgettable and offers zero surprises but it's also harmless date-night fare made more appealing by the cast of Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling and especially Blythe Danner.
To put it on the spectrum of films that have sprung from the Sparks canon of weepy romance novels, it's not as good as "The Notebook" but not as bad as "Nights in Rodanthe." And it does represent the first truly grown-up performance yet from Efron, who continues to establish his post-"High School Musical" career with eclectic if not necessarily commercially successful choices.
Here he plays U.S. Marine Sgt. Logan Thibault, who's just returned from his third tour in Iraq with an item he credits with saving his life: a photograph he picked up off the ground of a beautiful blonde sitting in front of a lighthouse. Shaken from his service, he doesn't know whose it was or who she is but he insists on finding her to thank her.
Turns out she's Beth (Taylor Schilling), a single mom who runs a sprawling dog kennel in an idyllic small town in the Louisiana swamps. Naturally, Logan doesn't tell her why he's there for a long time, which (naturally) will serve as the obligatory misunderstanding after they've (naturally) fallen for each other. Their love scenes, like every other element of Hicks' film, are lighted in a way that gives everything an impossibly warm, romantic glow. You can roll your eyes, or you can give in.
Same goes for Efron's character, who takes a job helping out at the kennel just to be near Beth and her family, which includes her bright, shy young son Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart, who manages to avoid kid-actor precociousness). Efron has bulked up here to add a more masculine facet to his blue-eyed, pretty looks, and he's actually rather believable as the traditional strong, silent type. Logan is good with kids and animals. He plays chess and the piano. He studied philosophy. He can haul heavy bags of dog food and fix a tractor. He's unfailingly polite to everyone he meets. Oh, and he happens to look like Zac Efron.
Schilling is just as attractive with her slightly tomboyish, wholesome femininity, and she looks eerily like Danner, who adds both zest and dignity as Beth's spitfire of a grandmother. And so they are a lovely couple, which is what you want when you want the escape. They have some glimmers of chemistry and not much more.
But! There is an obstacle keeping them apart. Besides the pesky duplicitousness of Logan's' real purpose at the kennel, there's Beth's cartoonishly hostile ex-husband, Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), a politically connected sheriff's deputy who keeps threatening to take their son away from her.
Crazy things can happen in the bayou, though. And we know that's where we are because Beth makes jambalaya in one scene. That's sort of a metaphor for the whole film, though: You'll never get anything authentically satisfying but every once in a while you'll get a whiff of something vaguely pleasing.
"The Lucky One," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence. Running time: 101 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.