Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Lucky One.


The Lucky One (Scott Hicks, 2012)

Category: IIII SEEEE SPARKSSSS FLYYY WHENEVER YOUU SMILEEE. There were six extant Sparks adaptations when I started writing this blog, and over the course of several months I watched them all. It was the kind of self-punishing move that even ardent masochists would find excessive, and yet for the sake of completism I did it. The blog is nothing if not comprehensive.

The Sparks phenomenon continues apace. His next two film adaptations, Safe Haven and The Best of Me, are already in the works, and last year he sold a TV pilot to ABC. Yet despite his vast and growing empire of fluff, I get the feeling that, what with Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey and the other steamy junk-lit that’s in vogue, Sparks is not quite so angrily regarded in the hater community. Maybe he’s the lesser of two evils at the moment. Indeed, Sparks himself has set out to distinguish himself from the pack: “I write real, romantic drama, not romantic fantasy,” Sparks said in a recent interview in the Huffington Post. It was all I could do not to climb through the computer screen and yell at him. The man must be stopped.

My familiarity with this issue: I could write a book. Or just six (now seven) really long blog posts.

On top of all the Sparks stuff, this film features Charlie St. Cloud star Zac Efron, a TMS favorite, and known unknown Taylor Schilling. Here is an almost entirely unrelated story. Recently I came into possession of a fancy-looking silver pen. A girl left it in a room I was sitting in, and I picked it up and kept it as my own. The pen has the words “Mr. Schilling” engraved on the side. (The girl who left it is not named Schilling.) I carry this pen with me everywhere now, in case a stranger in the vicinity should need a pen, at which point I’d swoop in and try out my new character: Mr. Schilling, the generous pen manufacturer.

I just looked up Taylor Schilling, by the way. She appeared in the recent adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Wikipedia says that the movie (which is actually called Atlas Shrugged: Part I, even though II and III may not happen because Part I sucked and made no money) was marketed largely to the Tea Party community, with assists from Fox News’ Sean Hannity and John Stossel. As noted earlier, the film earned less than $5 million at the box office. Are movie tickets taxed? Maybe the Tea Party folks were worried that they were.

I saw this film on a Tuesday afternoon with FOTB Lindsay Filardo. We were the only people in the theater. I was very concerned about a repeat of @lafilardo’s famous reaction to The Last Song.

What FOTB Lindsay Filardo thought of the movie: I tell people I love Nicholas Sparks but have never read his books. In other words, I’m the worst and I’m also his target audience. But this movie didn’t win me over. Don’t get me wrong; Zac Efron managed to deliver on some levels of unf. [Editor’s Note: That word is foul.] Things going for him included: his hulky build, reminiscent of that kid from high school who enlisted and who you rediscovered on a post-midnight Facebook wander. The fuzzy crew cut also did it for me. Also, his boyish way of playing with dogs. End of list.

Things working vehemently against him included his dead eyes and awful, awful acting. If Troy Bolton is my dream guy, then Logan is his weird quiet cousin I lower my standards for. [Editor’s Note: Vague SPOILER ahead:] A final word: If this had been a @lafilardo joint, the role of Blonde Girl’s young son would have been played by Booger from The Last Song and he would have been crushed by the treehouse.

What I thought of the movie/How I related to the movie: Standard Sparks, folks. Cringeworthy, dull, stale, overheated, occasionally infuriating. There were boats, there were tears, there was a tragic death. It’s just paint-by-numbers at this point. The plot is nearly identical to that of Message in a Bottle, and this movie is just as boring.

Before I get to how bad it was, here’s something delightful: Efron’s character’s name is Logan Thibault. That’s pronounced “Tebow.” TEEEEEEEE-BOWWWWWWW. I yelled that at the screen. (Remember, we were the only two people in the theater.) Thinking about how Tim Tebow would have reacted to everything that happens in the movie made it that much more bearable to sit through.

But it only took five seconds for me to start hating it. Efron crams about thirty clichés into a brief voiceover, something about moments in your life or making choices or God knows what. I will send you a shiny new nickel if you can guess what was onscreen during this narration. If you guessed “an overhead shot of a boat on the water,” send me your address. Literally five seconds into the movie and I was already groaning.

We follow Tebow, a Marine, and his fellow soldiers in Iraq. He’s Tebowing standing outside when he sees a picture on the ground over yonder. Wouldn’t ya know it, it’s a pretty lady, and wouldn’t ya double know it, just as he wanders the ten feet to get it, the place where he was just standing got blown up. He’s lucky, that one! Eight months later, Tebow “luckily” escapes death another time before going home, all the while clutching that sexy pic. If he knew who the girl was, I’m sure he’d be sending her some sappy letters. It’s the Sparks way!

Instead, he goes home, staying with his sister and brother-in-law (or brother and sister-in-law, we meet them for like two seconds and learn nothing about their relationship) and their two kids. We learn that Tebow has PTSD, freaking out when the kids play violent video games and surprise him while he’s sleeping. It’s pretty sad, and his sister(-in-law?) suggests that he seek help for his condition. Tebow has a better plan. (And his PTSD is never mentioned again in the movie, not even once.) He notices that there’s a lighthouse in the background of the sexy pic, so he searches some random lighthouse website until he finds it, because that’s a thing. Now Tebow’s in Colorado (AMIRITE BRONCOS?!? NOT ANYMORE J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS TEEEEEEEEEEE-BOWWWWWWWWWW), but the lighthouse is in Louisiana. So what’s a lonely soldier and his trusty dog to do?

Why, he WALKS TO LOUISIANA. This happens. There’s no big montage or anything; it takes like a minute of screen time. We barely even process the fact that he was in Colorado and he walked to Louisiana until he offhandedly mentions it later. This is not a magic realism thing like in Forrest Gump. The movie hands this to us, straight-faced, and expects us to just go with it. It’s one of the craziest things to occur in any Sparks movie. There’s an idea…

The Craziest Things to Occur in Each Nicholas Sparks Movie

Honorable mention: Kevin Costner’s character, while on his last boat ride before moving to Chicago to be with Robin Wright Penn, dying in a storm on the water after saving two people.
The winner: The way RWP handles the initial message in a bottle situation – she has her boss print the letters in the Chicago Tribune, then she and her team researches the bottles and the stationery, tracking the latter to a stationery store in North Carolina who just up and gives her Kevin Costner’s name.

Honorable mention: Mandy Moore’s entire character, a cancer-stricken super-Christian preacher’s daughter/bangs enthusiast who is made fun of by literally everyone in the school.
The winner: The high school musical, which apparently contains only one song and features a mumbly Shane West (who was forced to participate in the show as punishment) starring opposite Moore, who, by the way, wrote the thing. Also, Shane West visibly falls in love with her during the song. Also, it’s a Switchfoot song.

Honorable mention: Tie between Ryan Gosling hanging off that Ferris wheel in order to get Rachel McAdams to go out with her (it’s crazy, yes, but Rachel McAdams is a known stone-cold fox), and his writing her one letter every day for a year with no response (he'd have run out of things to talk about by day five, the latest). 
The winner: Tie between Gena Rowlands’s moment of clarity through her previously-though-impenetrable dementia, and then the thing where she and James Garner die at the same time as they sleep together in the nursing home.

Honorable mention: Richard Gere dying in a mudslide in South America days before he’s about to move back to the States to be with Diane Lane, such that when she opens the door expecting to find him there, she instead finds his son (James Franco) who’s there to tell her about his death.
The winner: Gere and Lane stay in a giant rickety house on stilts that’s literally on the water, which somehow is not destroyed during a huge hurricane. Also they do the do during the hurricane.

Honorable mention: Tie between Miley Cyrus’s love of the song “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5, despite her edgy outsider status, the whole sea turtles under a shopping cart debacle, and the fact that she and Liam Hemsworth go SCUBA diving in the fish tank at the aquarium (which contains a shark).
The winner: Miley being accepted to go to the Julliard School even though she hasn’t touched a piano in three years. It’s said that the Julliard folks have been watching her since she was five, although they apparently stopped watching when she reached fifteen.

Honorable mention: Channing Tatum’s autistic dad reaching out and embracing him from his hospital bed right before his death.
The winner: Tatum flying back to America like three days after 9/11, then attending a fancy 9/11 party at Amanda Seyfried’s rich dad’s house, during which he is condescended to by rich people telling him how the military will force him to re-enlist now that there’s going to be a War on Terror.
  
That took a while. So he walks to Louisiana with his dog. It takes a few hours or so. He finds out that the girl works at a “pet motel” (I guess the term “kennel” is too harsh for Sparks). He goes there, intending to tell her straight away that he’s found her pic and it saved his life. But before he’s able to they have some hilarious interruptions (her phone rings twice) and misunderstandings (she thinks he’s there to apply for the job of Pet Motel Lackey). So he doesn’t tell her. There’s no way that that can come back to bite him later on in the film.

It should be noted that Efron is playing this role super-stoic and soldier-y, and so when he tells Mr. Schilling that he’s just casually walked there from Colorado, she gets all weirded out. But after a chat with her grandma (Blythe Danner!), he’s deemed “not a crazy stalker” and is given the job. “You don’t know anything about him,” Schilling complains, to which Danner says, “Neither do you.” Which is not an acceptable answer.

But Schilling’s situation is a little unorthodox, too. She shares custody of her seven-year-old whiz-kid (read: annoying as all get-out) son Ben with her insane cop (we’ll get to it) of an ex-husband. The ex, played by Jay R. Ferguson, looked crazy familiar to me, and I wasn’t able to place him until IMDb-ing him when I got home. It’s Stan Rizzo from Mad Men! You know, Stan of the polo shirts and the misogyny and the occasional office stripping with Peggy Olson. Good to see Stan getting work.

So now that we have the characters all in the same place, the romantic plot begins to unfold. It’s quite a languid unfolding. There’s no urgency here. We all know how it’s going to work. She’s suspicious of Tebow, but he’ll worm his way into her heart after earning the affections of her grandma and son. (Much like how Tebow converted the haters in Denver! OK that’s not similar at all.) If having Stan Rizzo be a villainous, crooked cop who pats down Tebow (ooo hello) for no reason isn’t enough to get the audience to hate him, we also learn that his father is a rich, powerful judge running for office. This allows Stan to hold his ex-wife and son hostage: if she does anything he doesn’t like (like take up with a moody ex-Marine with great abs), then he’ll take away the kid. Not the worst plot device in the Sparks canon, but it is laid on quite thickly.

They also overdo her suspicion of Tebow. Upon hearing that he went to college for one year before declaring for the NFL Draft enlisting, she MAKES FUN OF HIM for his lack of education and challenges him to quote one of his favorite philosophers. (He goes with Dr. Seuss, by the way, which is a nice touch.) Among the many Sparks themes we’ve identified here on the blog, the most troubling might be how many of his characters openly ridicule and denigrate our nation's brave veterans! Maybe people used to spit on returning soldiers back in the Vietnam era, but this is the 21st century! You can’t say anything bad about the troops these days unless you’re a character in a Nicholas Sparks book.

And what makes her overreaction to him all the more puzzling is the fact that we learn that her late brother was also a Marine (and obviously the recipient of the sexy pic, although it’s now weird that I’m calling it a sexy pic, isn’t it?). The movie shamelessly uses this as a tool to crank the plot along: on the anniversary of his death, she has a major freakout in the yard. Tebow comforts her as she tells him that the investigation into her brother’s death was inconclusive, although there have been rumors of friendly fire. But the real point of the scene is for him to be there for her so they can inch closer to doing the do. It’s uneasy.

At this point in the film, Schilling starts acting like a middle-aged housewife reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Apparently only now noticing Zefron’s superhunk status, she stands at the sink watching him unload a truck through the window, and AUDIBLY MOANS as he exerts himself. And when Stan Rizzo starts getting grabby on her in the yard and Tebow steps in to defuse the situation, it’s all Schilling can do to not jump him on the spot. Easy now, Taylor! You’ve got a kid and your grandma in the house!

They finally kiss, and she says it’s been a long time since that’s happened, and he says, “You should be kissed every day, every hour, every minute,” which, Jesus Christ Sparks, just kill me already and get it over with. After some more complications that I can’t be bothered to explain, they finally do it. Lindsay said “unf” aloud, and while I maintain that word is foul, it did apply. Hey now.

Since, as mentioned, the plot of this film is the same as Message in a Bottle, the same stupid question lingers over this whole affair: when will she find out about how he knew who she was? (Sub-question: why hasn’t he taken one of the DOZENS of opportunities he’s had since he got there to tell her about it?) Stan Rizzo forces the issue by breaking into Tebow’s shack and finding the pic. He plants all these ideas in Schilling’s head that maybe Tebow feels guilty for friendly firing on her bro, and maybe that’s why he pulled a Vanessa Carlton just to clean out her dog cages (euphemism very much intended).

I guess the SPOILERS begin now, but ugh give me a break. So Tebow agrees to leave, because she can’t trust him, but then he comes back for some reason. He does so right after Stan Rizzo shows up, pledging to be a better dad, which causes the kid to run away through the dark woods to his treehouse, which is conveniently located over a rickety bridge. Yada yada yada, the bridge collapses, Stan’s trapped under the treehouse with the kid, Tebow saves the kid and is going back to save Stan when the treehouse falls on him and he dies. That scene, by the way, was the “honorable mention” in this film’s list of craziest things.

And so conveniently, if awkwardly, the first major obstacle to Schilling and Tebow getting together is gone. The second is still the whole thing about her brother, and after seeing a picture of him, Tebow conveniently remembers that he did meet the guy and actually witnessed his brave, non-friendly-fire death (the first scene of the movie). I call BS on that. When the military investigates possibly friendly fire incidents, they interview everyone who was there, right? So Tebow would have been interviewed, and thus would have known the guy’s name, etc. But then of course the whole movie wouldn’t have happened.

So they have a meaningful chat about it, he leaves, she chases him, they embrace. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Schilling had a boat that Tebow fixed (OF COURSE), so they go on that. Efron voiceovers, “Everyone has their own destiny. Not everyone makes the choice to follow it.” It makes no sense. But it’s just part one of the standard Sparks ending: clichéd voiceover, meaningful song, boat ride, exeunt, flourish.

How I felt after the movie ended: Sparks wants these movies to be about Big Ideas (hence the voiceovers), and it’s really awkward when, at certain points in the film, Taylor Schilling’s character becomes a mouthpiece for those Big Ideas. For instance, after she finds out about Efron finding the photo, she has an emotional talk with Blythe Danner about it. Danner says, “I think he was meant to find that photo,” and Schiling, who for some reason is all caught up in her theories about the nature of destiny and predestintation, accuses her grandmother of believing that her brother was “meant to” die so that Efron could find it.

What does that have to do with anything? First of all, she didn’t say that. And secondly, no one thinks like that in the moment. You just found out the guy you’ve been sleeping with had this photo of you that belonged to your brother. You’d be thinking about the logistics of the issue. Did this guy know my brother? How would he have gotten it? Can I trust my insane ex-husband, who brought all this to my attention? Do I love this guy enough to get over this weird coincidence? And so on. You wouldn’t be pondering the nature of predestination with your grandma.

This is why Sparks is so wrong when he says he writes “real, romantic drama.” Aside from the fact that his plots are often so torturously contrived as to inflict the maximum amount of emotional damage on the characters/audience, the fact of the matter is that he’s not even going for realism. He's trying to aim for something higher. He traffics not in the actual things that are true and meaningful and realistic about love, but rather in tears and lessons and those clichéd Big Ideas so that we will feel transformed. Nowhere among the many thousands of words I have used to describe the Sparks ethos will you find the word "real." Except as part of the phrase "real bad."

And so the seventh Sparks film has come and gone, and somehow I’m still alive. I am The Lucky One. Clichéd voiceover, meaningful song, boat ride, exeunt, flourish.

3 comments:

  1. god, i've missed this blog.

    somehow the existence of that vanessa carlton song escaped my notice until reading this post. two things: 1. so did she just look at the proclaimers and think, "i can do better than that"? 2. she didn't walk 1000 miles in the video. she drove a piano 1000 miles. that is nutty.

    i really enjoyed the run-down of craziest things to happen in every sparks movie.

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  2. You forgot to add the final boat count: 16. Which is funny because although it took place in Louisiana there was no indication of proximity to the gulf. The only time I was aware that we were in Louisiana was when Nicholas Sparks suddenly remembered and showed the mom and son making jambalaya.

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