The Lucky One marks the latest attempt to turn Zac Efron into a major dreamboat movie star, and more than ever, he looks the part. No longer the winsome boy of Charlie St. Cloud, he has grown up and filled out. In theory, that makes him the perfect blue-eyed, brooding pinup to play the hero of one of those it-isn't-just-love-it's-fate sudsers by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook). Efron's character, Logan, is a tough but tender Marine who has just returned from Iraq. He's a fearless hard case but also a super-sensitive guy who digs philosophy, plays chess, and likes to take long walks through the countryside with his German shepherd, Zeus. To decompress from the war, he walks, literally, all the way from Colorado to Louisiana to seek out Beth (Taylor Schilling), the mysterious blonde beauty whose photograph he found right after an ambush and held onto as his good luck charm. It worked: He survived, while most of the buddies around him got killed. But when he shows up at Green Kennels, the bucolic canine boarding establishment that Beth, a divorced single mom, runs with her grandmother (Blythe Danner), he can't bring himself to reveal why he's there. Instead, he signs on as a kennel worker and causes minor forms of trouble, mostly by batting those eyes and being a smoldering hunk of danger in a T-shirt.
At least, that's the idea. Yet Zac Efron doesn't really know how to smolder. Basically, he's playing that soft-core romantic fantasy, the sexy handyman, crossed with the sort of conflicted-stud role that Paul Newman used to rule the screen with. When Efron stares, however, there's no undercurrent, no sensual mischief. He's just a lox sweet, handsome, and a little dull. Taylor Schilling, in cutoffs and a billowy white '70s top, matches up well with him she's like Taylor Swift in a perfume commercial but the film has to keep coming up with roadblocks to keep the two apart. The first, and silliest, is that she acts all testy and standoffish while Danner, as the youthful and doting grandma, does the flirting for her. Then Beth lets down her guard and begins to melt under Logan's gaze (when he tells her he did three tours of duty, it's practically an aphrodisiac), at which point the movie brings on her ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson, from Mad Men), a local cop and jealous macho abuser who keeps threatening to take away their son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart). He warns that he'll tell the court she's involved with Logan, a no-good ''drifter.'' But really, in what century or county is this movie taking place? Beth has done nothing wrong, and the film goes out of its way to show us that Logan is the ideal surrogate dad.
That leaves just one real obstacle standing in the couple's way, and that's Logan's secret: the fact that he found his way to Beth through her photograph which (it's revealed early on) belonged to her brother, who got killed in the ambush that Logan escaped. Why doesn't Logan just explain all this? Because there wouldn't be a movie otherwise. The Lucky One doesn't have the schlock rapture of The Notebook (the one Sparks adaptation that has really worked). The trouble with the movie isn't that it's too girly-swoony; it's that it tries to achieve emotion through glowy sunsets and a paint-by-numbers script. Of course, there's every chance that the target audience for The Lucky One will still cry a happy tear at the end. Maybe the movie should come with a credit that reads: ''Just add water.'' C