By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Nicholas Sparks has the formula down pat. His 16 romance novels aim at the heartstrings, usually hit their targets, and often end up on the movie screen.

The Lucky One is an adaptation of the 2008 novel of the same name by Sparks, a comfort-food romantic drama that may be formulaic but that delivers dependably for its target audience.

(2½ stars out of 4)

This is the seventh movie to emerge from a Sparks best-seller — with two more on the way.

The Notebook was embraced critically and commercially beyond the level achieved by any of the others (Dear John, Message in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe, The Last Song, A Walk to Remember).  The genre — emotionally conflicted love stories — may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but all have been at least artistically respectable and watchable.

Zac Efron stars as discharged US Marine Sgt. Logan Thibault, who returns to his family in Colorado and struggles to fit in and readjust after his third tour of duty in Iraq, afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He credits a photograph that he found of a woman he does not know with indirectly saving his life on the battlefield when he bent down to pick it up out of the rubble.  It then became his good-luck charm in combat.

Her name, it turns out, is Beth Green, played by Taylor Schilling, a divorced single mother (Riley Thomas Stewart plays her eight-year-old son) who lives with her understanding and supportive grandmother (Blythe Danner) and grieves for her brother, still missing in action and presumably deceased in Iraq.

When Thibault finds out where she lives, he walks all the way to picturesque Hamden, La., where Beth works at their family-run dog kennel.

But instead of revealing why he has come, he accepts a job at the kennel.

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As a romance develops between the two of them, and Logan bonds with Beth’s son, Beth’s deputy sheriff ex–husband, played by Jay R. Ferguson, starts stalking and plotting.

Veteran Oscar-nominated Australian director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars, No Reservations, Hearts in Atlantis, The Boys are Back) takes a sensitive, low-keyed approach, with only the occasional overwrought exchange, in a way that makes for pleasantly engaging viewing.

Will Fetters’ adaptation of Sparks’ novel, touching on themes such as grief, loss, courage, and destiny, stays pretty much on the surface of things, depends a bit too much on coincidence, and is stronger in the setup than in the climax and resolution.

And there’s barely a sense of place, to some degree because the novel’s location of North Carolina has been shifted to Louisiana.

But that script also has Efron narrating and dominating, his star quality carrying the day.  Keeping the exuberance he has displayed in musicals in check, Efron wears this film comfortably on his shoulders.

Looking bulked up, he continues to impress, his star-turn performance in this outing as the brooding former soldier especially admirable because the strong, silent character Sparks has created is perhaps too gifted, too perfect, too patient, too much the object of a romantic fantasy.

Yet the easily charismatic Efron does wonders with his underwritten role, lending him enough humanity to make him real nonetheless.

And the easy chemistry between Efron and Schilling, crucial to this kind of film, goes a long way, however idealized it might be.

So we’ll spark 2½ stars out of 4.  Detractors may dismiss The Lucky One as a manipulative tearjerker, but viewers open to its charms and heart-on-its-sleeve emotionality will feel that they’re the lucky ones.

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