Where There’s (Nick) Sparks, There’s Fire
Movies adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels require that their audiences suspend disbelief–a lot. Yet most of the time the films work because audiences go in wanting to believe in the power of fate, especially when fate leads to true love. We want to believe in a cinematic higher power that, despite the flaws and tragic circumstances of the characters, leads them to their destinies.
The latest Sparks film, The Lucky One, asks a lot of us in the disbelief department during the first 20 minutes. Those so inclined will sit in the darkened theater wanting and willing to believe the premise: that Logan (Zac Efron), a U.S. Marine fighting in Iraq, finds a photo of a beautiful woman (Taylor Schilling). That the photo becomes his guardian angel, protecting him in battle while many of his friends become casualties. That upon his return to the U.S., Logan will search for the woman and find her after walking from his home in Colorado to her small town in Louisiana.
Her name is Beth and she runs a dog kennel with her grandmother (Blythe Danner). Logan tries to show her the photo and tell his story but, as fate would have it, his attempt is interrupted and he ends up filling a job-opening at the kennel. That this is believable–and it is–is due to the context of the grown-up fairy tale universe created by Sparks, screenwriter Will Fetters and director Scott Hicks. Set-ups in Sparks screen adaptions are easy to buy when you walk into the theater wanting to believe.
Where The Lucky One runs into trouble is with what happens after the set-up. The obstacles that stand between Logan and Beth falling in love are too easily surmountable to fill a two-hour movie. As it turns out, the soldier who was carrying Beth’s picture was her brother. This would seem to lead to smooth sailing for Logan and Beth to become a couple. The big hitch? Beth has shut down emotionally since finding out that her brother, who was her soul-mate, was killed in action. It’s doubly unfortunate that summoning even such a basic emotion seems beyon Schillingʻs skills.. More accomplished actresses, such as Amanda Seyfried (Dear John) and Diane Lane (Nights in Rodanthe), have evoked the emotions needed to validate the angst suffered by Sparks’ heroines. In Schilling’s case it’s difficult to believe that her character would waste an hour of screen time before deciding to jump Zac Efron’s bones.
For his part, Efron is developing into a credible leading man and makes good on the promise he displayed in 2009’s Me & Orson Welles. Logan is the strong, silent type, and Efron does a good job of convincing us that still waters run deep beneath his dazzling blue eyes. He also makes us believe, without going overboard, that survivor’s guilt fuels his character’s inner turmoil.
In the end, of course, Logan and Beth find, well…fans won’t be disappointed. Connoisseurs of Sparks’ fate-based-romance formula will be satisfied because Fetters and Hicks follow the rules of the genre–all the characters get what’s coming to them, good and bad. But if you’re looking for a film that transcends the genre, you’re better off renting the screen adaptation of Sparks’ The Notebook–an average movie turned near-classic through career-capping performances by Gena Rowlands and James Garner. Now, those actors can make you believe anything.