Well, it’s not like you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. The often-sappy, always-tragic, sun-dappled drama that has made Nicholas Sparks a household name has proven so successful over the past 15 years that almost half his books have spawned (popular) movie adaptations, and his work has actually become a genre unto itself. Even movies that Sparks had nothing to do with (The Vow, Letters to Juliet) frequently evoke his name.

Sparks’ 2008 novel The Lucky One continues the pattern, and while the movie adaptation doesn’t offer anything that strays even a little bit from his tried and true formula, it does prove one thing– Zac Efron isn’t just ‘that kid from High School Musical‘ anymore.

Beginning with his rise-above-the-muck performance in last year’s New Year’s Eve, Efron has proven that he’s got some serious acting chops to go with his pretty face… though, to be fair, it’s that pretty face (and other, um, physicalities) that’s filling the seats in theaters this weekend.

Here Efron plays Logan Thibault, a Marine who is on his third tour in Iraq when he spots a photo half-buried in some rubble. When he goes to retrieve it, a bomb blows behind him; had he not gone after the photo, he would have died. As a result, Logan makes it his mission to track down the pretty girl in the photo and thank her for (in effect) saving his life.

Turns out Beth (Taylor Schilling) runs a kennel in the prettiest spot in all of Louisiana. It’s always either sunrise or sunset, the grass is never anything but the brightest shade of green you’ll ever see, and it never rains (except for in the third act, when, of course, bad things start happening). Hey, it is Nicholas Sparks, after all.

But the entire length of the movie hinges on one, simple, head-scratcher of a fact– that Logan chooses not to tell Beth why he walked (yes, walked) from Colorado to Louisiana to find her. Of course this eventually leads to her finding out for herself, which leads to an argument, which leads to a tear-filled reconciliation (hey, it is Nicholas Sparks, after all), but much like 2011’s disastrous The Dilemma, the inability of a seemingly intelligent person (Logan plays piano, plays chess, and can instantly fix anything that has a motor) to spit out a few simple words undermines the entire plot.

If, however, you can suspend disbelief (and somehow keep yourself from hurling questions at the screen), The Lucky One does actually accomplish what it intended. (Sparks is living the good life in North Carolina for a reason.) There’s plenty of romance, plenty of steamy hot ‘interactions’ (though probably not enough, if you polled the double x-chromosome crowd), and plenty of super-scenic montages set to folksy, lilting love songs.

Director Scott Hicks (Shine) doesn’t bring anything especially fresh to the Sparks oeuvre —The Last Song and Dear John had eerily similar feels– but The Lucky One is still plenty-pretty to look at, and is often entertaining despite itself. And Hicks does deserve some credit for a particularly well-crafted combat bit at the beginning.

Along with Efron, Schilling also does a nice job bringing her character to life, and though some of her dialogue is trite and many of her decisions are questionable, those are the fault of Sparks, first, and screenwriter Will Fetters, second. Blythe Danner also gets credit for excellent work as Beth’s pull-no-punches grandma. You may find yourself pitying poor Jay Ferguson, however– he’s saddled with being the bad guy (Beth’s ex-husband Keith) and ends up becoming not much more than a cartoonish buffoon.

But that’s how bad guys are, here. And that’s how sunsets look. And that’s how green the grass is.

Hey, it is Nicholas Sparks, after all.

3/5 stars