Fate moves in mysterious ways, especially when writers need it to move mysteriously to keep their plots churning along. That’s only a problem when the contrivances start showing. No one likes, say, As You Like It or Oliver Twist because they reflect reality. But when extraordinary coincidences drive a story just because no other elements step up to get the job done, it’s hard not to feel jerked around. The Lucky One, a Nicholas Sparks adaptation directed by Shine’s Scott Hicks, spends the first chunk of its running time using extraordinary circumstances to maneuver Zac Efron’s protagonist into the position to embark on a perfectly ordinary romance. Then it largely forgets about the setup until something needs to incite the film’s climax.
It doesn’t start that way, though. Hicks opens the film in the thick of battle, as Efron’s Marine character helps lead a raid in Iraq. The next day, he happens to avoid an explosion because he stops to pick up a dropped photo of Taylor Schilling. Returning from his third tour of duty, Efron decides to find Schilling and thank her for unknowingly saving his life. But once he tracks her down, he loses his nerve, and he takes a job at the picturesque family home she and her grandmother (Blythe Danner) have converted into a boarding facility for dogs. Soon he’s shoveling his way into Schiller’s heart.
Quickly forgetting about the lingering effects of Efron’s traumatic war experience, The Lucky One contents itself with becoming a sunny romance, with only Schilling’s jealous deputy-sheriff ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson) casting a shadow. As such, it’s pleasant enough. Hicks knows how to cast his attractive actors and locations in the best possible light, and the film is wholesome and hot-blooded, sending its characters to church and letting them get well past first base. Too bad the plot keeps getting in the way. The revelation of Efron’s not-so-awful-secret hangs over the film like the contrivance it is, but Ferguson’s two-dimensional character is the real problem. Whenever he shows up to bully Schilling, it’s a reminder that there’s a silly story that needs advancing. As a pretty, low-stakes bayou romance The Lucky One works well enough. When asked to carry any kind of dramatic weight, however, it collapses.