The Lucky One: Zac Efron Grows Up

A photograph found in the rubble of a street in Iraq leads a soldier to true love. Welcome to the annual Nicholas Sparks mush-fest.

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Alan Markfield / Warner Bros.

Taylor Schilling and Zac Efron

The Lucky One is an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks book about a Marine named Logan (Zac Efron) who finds a photograph of a pretty blonde in the rubble of a building in Iraq. With her image tucked into his pocket, Logan survives several bad incidents. He decides this unnamed woman saved him (rather than Kevlar or some such) and sets out to find her when he gets back from Iraq. Logan’s sleuthing leads him to Louisiana from Colorado on foot, a therapeutic method of travel for a shell-shocked veteran. As evidenced by director Scott Hick’s (Shine, No Reservations) many rear view shots of Efron, it’s also an excellent butt toner.

When Logan meets the girl, Beth (Taylor Schilling, of TV’s Mercy), who is beautiful, single and also scarred by the Iraq war, he is afraid to tell her about the picture, lest she think the whole lucky charm thing is weird. And this is the dark secret that hangs over these star-crossed lovers and threatens to tear them apart.

I am worried about Sparks. Not financially of course (The Lucky One is the seventh movie his writing has spawned) — but I’m concerned that the softest sentimentalist in America has lost what little narrative muscle tone he once had. He used to kill cherished characters, to chop them down regardless of age or virtue (Mandy Moore in A Walk to Remember, Greg Kinnear in The Last Song), whether by lingering fatal illness or accident (Kevin Costner in Message in a Bottle, swept off a sailboat; Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe, really unpleasantly, via mudslide). Now a lack of proper communication over an entirely forgivable, completely inoffensive and passive, even endearing act constitutes dramatic tension?

(WATCH: TIME’s 10 Questions with Zac Efron)

Not that nonsensical obfuscations aren’t always essential to Sparks’ fictions, but usually they run more along the lines of neglecting to tell someone you are dying. In The Lucky One, the biggest obstacle to happiness is this small omission of information. Beth runs a kennel/dog hotel and on the day that Logan shows up, his impeccably trained German Shepherd at his side, happens to be interviewing applicants to help out around the kennel. Her wise and witty mother (Blythe Danner) is the type of lady who immediately recognizes the value of a hardworking hunk like Logan while her little boy takes a shine to the stoic veteran, too. And hark, through the  bayou yonder is an artfully dilapidated cottage for rent.

A relative newcomer, Schilling has some of the wholesome pixie prettiness of Mary Stuart Masterson, but with a strong sultry side. Yet there’s nothing edgy about her, even though Beth is supposed to be a woman who made bad choices in the past—as amply demonstrated by her moronic ex-husband, a guy mean enough to pull a gun on a dog. This is typical of Sparks; it’s fine if someone had past drama, but they are always portrayed as healed, whole and ready for the next step. The bestselling author likes troubled scenarios, but not troubled people. And now it seems he’s moved onto killing off only insignificant characters, making The Lucky One about as emotionally taxing as watching a home makeover show. Which it resembles. Logan can work wonders with paint, mosquito netting and chipped furniture.You should see what he does with an outdoor shower.

(READ: TIME’s review of Dear John)

Actually you should see what he does in an outdoor shower. It’s not easy making a transition from bashful teeny bopper to playing men who actually have sex. The dialogue in The Lucky One is inexcusable. (The only valid response to “You should be kissed, every day, every hour, every minute” is, “When will I breathe and how will I void?”) But as a person who removes a woman’s clothing in the half light of a Southern afternoon, Efron acquits himself reasonably well. Is he sexy enough to make credible a scene where Beth seems to have an orgasm while washing dishes and watching him lift bags of dog food? Maybe not, but, honestly, who could? It’s true that Efron’s main technique in The Lucky One is to keep his smile in check, but he’s not an entirely outlandish casting choice. Sparks’ wildly popular stories, manned as they are by a variety of attractive people playing out slight variations of familiar scenarios, tend to blend together, a medley of manipulation about as memorable as a smoothie. I will remember The Lucky One as the one where Zac Efron does not die and has shower sex.

(READ: Zac Efron: The Tweens’ Dream)