“You should be kissed every day—every hour—every minute.” This phrase was faithfully transcribed directly from the lips of Zac Efron, though at the time, his lips were more immediately occupied by the lips of Taylor Schilling. The particularities of the scene—where, when, exactly why this carefully scripted makeout sesh was taking place—are not of importance, but the quotation itself is of interest simply because it might be the overarching thesis of Nicholas Sparks’ career. Sparks, whose romance novels such as “The Notebook” and “Nights in Rodanthe” and their subsequent film adaptations have won him the dual glories of the bestseller list and the box office success, has a singular vision to sell: Fate has someone perfect in store for you, and it’s only a matter of time before you are carried safely to your happy ending. Thus, the motto in its broader context is a claim of what you, the viewer, deserve. “You should be kissed every day— every hour—every MINUTE!”
Audiences have responded well to this comforting doctrine; this week, Sparks offers up his seventh film adaptation, titled “The Lucky One” and starring the aforementioned big-name snoggers. Efron, stubbled and studded-out in a post-“High School Musical” burst of masculinity, plays Logan, a Marine returned from Iraq with PTSD and a guilty conscience. Traumatized by brushes with death and the loss of his buddies, Logan credits his chance survival to a lucky charm: a photograph he happened to find in the sand after an intense nighttime firefight. The photograph—of course—depicts a pretty lady. Upon his return, Logan tracks down the lady in question (Schilling) with stalkerish determination, falls for her as well as for the requisite 8-year-old son who scurries around being cute (Riley Thomas Stewart), and gets embroiled in confrontation with the also requisite swinish father/ex-husband/douchebag (Jay R. Ferguson). The deck is now rigged for the inevitable. Thanks, Fate!
Shockingly enough, “The Lucky One” actually has its powerful moments, thanks entirely to director Scott Hicks. The film, after all, is at least ostensibly organized around a more serious topic than the vicarious erotic desire of its audience: namely, this war, its human toll, and the question of why it exists. Hicks understands that this is where the questions of fate and chance have serious weight, and he milks the drama for all it’s worth, zeroing in on violent events in unstinting slow motion as if trying to isolate the single explanation of why things happen among so many chunks of flying shrapnel. The image of a water bottle rent spectacularly by irresistible force as a blast shakes Logan’s Humvee, the rippling of the skin on his cheek as his body reacts against the blow, his buddy up top annihilated in an indefinable instant. The silent hero of this section of “The Lucky One,” as Simone Weil wrote of Homer’s “Iliad,” is force itself, mangling human lives or slipping quietly past them, its reasons or causes as inscrutable as the concept itself.
But of course, this movie is based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. The notions that the universe’s absurdity is outside the realms of our understanding and that violence and chance might be the final common denominators of life are quickly abandoned in favor of sappy Hollywood fatalism. Hicks, at times, seems to be revolting against the path that the script, or destiny, is dragging his film along. In one maudlin montage, as each of the predestined lovers sits alone trying not to think about the other, Hicks has placed a copy of “Moby Dick” in Logan’s lap open to an illustration of the whale’s tail suspended out of the water, the cartoonish phallus lunging comically out of Logan’s frustrated loins.
Visual gags like this, although hilariously subversive to the film’s tone, can’t make up for the fact that it is selling a sham. There are those who see their lives filled with a lot of bizarre and absurd events, chance encounters, disasters, disappointments, lucky breaks, and triumphs. Some bullets hit and some miss, objects are lost and then found by strangers, governments take entire nations into wars on false premises, and some aren’t kissed every day, much less every hour or minute.
As harmless as Sparks, in all his earnest feel-goodiness, might be in the context of romance, it is difficult to take as an apology for the Iraq War and the thousands of human lives, American and Iraqi, that have been eaten up by a fruitless search for elusive WMDs. “He didn’t die for nothing,” Logan assures his babe of her brother, whose death, we learn, precipitated Logan’s discovery of the dropped photo. The conclusion is debatable at best. That those lucky ones who end up with a final happy ending attribute their resounding success to the hand of Fate is all well and good, but don’t blame others if it leaves a bad taste in their mouths.