‘The Lucky One’: That would be Zac Efron

April 17, 2012

There haven’t been many movies based on the books by Nicholas Sparks that are much easier to swallow than Sparks’ prose.

But a good director with a creative screenwriter can distill a touching romance out of even Sparks’ overblown best-sellers. Indeed, I’m sure there are those who will be shocked that I not only enjoyed a lot of “The Lucky One,” but that I think Zac Efron’s performance is a break-out moment – the announcement that a teen dream has made the transition to adult dramatic actor.

I know there are those who will never give Efron the benefit of that doubt, because of his vehicle of origin, “High School Musical.” Or because he was a teen sensation who has grown into a young man who is both very boyish and good-looking. Hey, so was Paul Newman – or Johnny Depp.

If you watch Efron’s performance in Scott Hicks’ film of Sparks’ book (from a script by Will Fetters) honestly, you’ll see an actor who has both grown and continues to grow. He plays the strong silent hero who walks into a small town in Louisiana and sweeps into the life of a former teacher named Beth (Taylor Schilling). Beth is still grieving for the brother she lost in Iraq and for the marriage that ended because her husband was an insufferable turd (who still happens to be the local sheriff’s deputy, which allows him to lurk threateningly).

Efron is Logan Thibault, also an Iraq veteran, who believes his life was saved when the glint of sun off the plastic protector around a photograph lying in the rubble attracted his attention. It drew him a few steps away from where he had been sitting, when he went to pick it up, just as a mortar round took out the friends he was chatting with seconds before.

The photo – of an anonymous girl with the words “Be Safe” on the back – becomes his good-luck charm. When Logan musters out of the Marines, he goes in search of the girl in the picture, tracking her to that small town in Louisiana. Why? To return the photo and tell her thank you.

But the woman, Beth, who runs a kennel, is such a chatterbox that he doesn’t get the chance to tell her his story. Instead, she thinks he’s looking for work and hires him for a job opening to help around the kennel.

So he goes to work for her and her grandmother (Blythe Danner), making himself invaluable to them and becoming a pal to Beth’s son. He also becomes an object of jealousy for her ex-husband, who doesn’t like having this guy hanging around his ex-wife.

As in all such plots, the lie – or the sin of omission, as it were – comes to light and now what? In the case of this film, it lights the fuse on melodramatics that eventually lead to children in jeopardy and a plot-altering act of self-sacrifice. Yet Hicks keeps the overwrought moments to a minimum, letting the drama itself unfold in a natural way.

Efron captures the sense of self-imposed solitude in a young warrior, a combat survivor who feels guilty to still be alive. Efron fits perfectly into the mold of the quiet stranger who comes out of nowhere to help people he doesn’t really know, a lineage that runs from “Shane” to “The Station Agent” (admittedly a radical example) and beyond.

Schilling, on the other hand, is a solid but uninspiring actress, capable of finding the pain, but not the grace, in this character. Riley Thomas Stewart is a natural and naturally high-spirited child actor; Jay R. Ferguson was born to play bullies.

Is “The Lucky One” a great movie, or even a very good one? I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s emotionally honest and no more gushily romantic than one would expect from the genre. And it features outstanding work by Zac Efron, who deserves to be taken seriously as an actor.

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