When you strap on the feedbag at your local faux Italian dining big box, you're not paying for authenticity but for ample portions of warm, sloppy comfort, unfettered by the complexity of real pancetta or imported pecorino Romano cheese. The same thing applies when you take your seat for the seventh cinematic adaptation from the catalog of beach-read champ Nicholas Sparks; you get a big serving of buttery sentimentality, splashed with drops of romance and thrift store spirituality.
This time out, we get a drizzle of patriotism tossed into the usual romantic salad, with Zac Efron as an emotionally wounded vet returning home in search of the mystery woman he believes fate directed him to find. While in combat, Efron's serene Sgt. Logan Thibault finds the picture of a lovely blonde in rubble, and in retrieving it, narrowly avoids a deadly mortar strike. Feeling a profound debt of gratitude to this stranger, Logan sets out from his home in Colorado to find her; on foot, an epic journey reduced to a title sequence. The movie transplants Logan's destination from Sparks' beloved Carolinas to Louisiana, likely due to production tax incentives (remember those?), but the palmettos sway just as agreeably on the Gulf Coast. The sullen Marine finds his quarry; a willowy single mom named Beth (Taylor Schilling), but is too shy to tell her his story. He takes a job as a handyman at the kennel she owns with her wisdom-dispensing grandmother, rendered by Blythe Danner in a string of knowing smiles and frowns. Standing in the way of the would-be lovebirds is Beth's ex-hubby (Jay R. Ferguson ), a surly, cocky redneck sheriff, just so we have zero reason to care about him.
There is a giggle-worthy moment when Beth stares out the kitchen window at the sweaty Logan, while she sensuously caresses a pot, her hands slowly gliding through the sudsy water until she damn near climaxes. This scene is so silly it might as well be a Naked Gun cutting-room-floor fodder. This is later followed by a passionate — though clothed — dripping shower hump session that makes the average telenovela seem understated.
Zac Efron continues to try to shake off the mouse droppings still lingering from his teen idol days, and he appropriately tenses up his body, and tries to puff up his slender frame to look tough. Too often though, when tasked with being soulful, he gets caught flashing his best "blue steel" look at the camera, hoping to burn through the screen with his smoldering pale fire. The overwrought cinematography just loves Efron, but in the hammy hands of director Scott Hicks (Shine) the camera also loves every precious inch of god's little acre, coating every frame with sun-dappled splendor.
If you've seen one of these things you've seen them all — and trust me on this, because I have. The improbable conclusion has all the elements of movie tragedy; a kid in danger, a monster storm and a rickety old bridge. In the end, something physical is restored and something spiritual is renewed, and the audience has gotten what they paid for, whether it's good for them or not.
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