As the seasons inevitably change and the globe spins in space, I fear that Zac Efron, one-time teen titan, is becoming a man. The actor, who will be 25 this fall, has filled out and grown stubbly. Gone is his elfin sprightliness, replaced with something more still and almost saturnine. Don't worry, he's still got those wholesome Olympus-by-way-of-Redondo Beach sun-kissed good looks, they're just a bit more worn-in now. And they are used to at times masterful effect in Efron's new romantic weepy The Lucky One, the latest bit of soap from the Nicholas Sparks dream factory.
In the film, which is directed by Scott Hicks (Snow Falling on Cedars) with a screenplay by Will Fetters, Efron plays Logan Thibault, a Marine Corps sergeant who saw some stuff over there that he hasn't been able to shake. He's mildly shellshocked. So Efron spends a great deal of the movie silent and staring, sometimes pondering something in the middle distance, other times gazing with sad ache at the lady he loves. In these wordless moments, Efron's glass-blue eyes glow with lonely fire and his lips make a perfect tight seam. Turns out that Efron is surprisingly effective as a somewhat broken yet still strong silent type, and not just for his swoon-worthy good looks. We're so used to him bopping around on a basketball court in the High School Musical movies and 17 Again that to watch him all still and sad jars your senses a bit, in a good and surprising way. Sure he was mournful in Charlie St. Cloud, but in The Lucky One he's more firmly an adult, there's a hint of weariness to his pain that could only have developed with age. It's undeniably alluring to watch.
But then, alas, he opens his mouth and out comes a tumble of Sparksian platitudes or "he's good with the kid" nonsense, all delivered in Efron's round, affected theater kid voice. It breaks the spell and we are left to confront the rest of the movie, which proves a predictably sappy chore. While overseas, Logan found a picture of a beautiful young woman and carried it with him while surviving various incidents that he believes he shouldn't have survived. So he deems this mystery woman his lucky charm and upon his return to the States, after a tense and awkward stay with his sister and her family, sets off to find her. He quickly learns that the lighthouse she's posing in front of in the picture is in a coastal Louisiana town, so he walks there. From Colorado, he walks there, with his trusty
direwolf German shepherd as company. The American nature scenes are light-soaked and dewy, pure serious car commercial stuff, while Mark Isham's wistful, plucky score bounces along. It's nice, but it's too nice, it's thick and sugary. And it only gets richer.
The girl in the photo turns out to be Beth (Taylor Schilling), a kennel owner with a young son, a mean ex-husband, a sparkplug grandma (Blythe Danner, acting blithely), and a dead brother. She's a jumble of movie-grade Issues, all of which will of course be tidily dealt with by film's end. Logan is immediately entranced by Beth and while he fully intends to come right out and tell her why he's there, he finds himself unable to do it. Instead he takes a job as a jack-of-all-trades handyman at the kennel, cutely playing with dogs and hunkily fixing a tractor and lifting heavy bags of feed with his bulging muscles. Beth of course begins to develop a serious case of the hots as she realizes that this handsome drifter is ludicrously, comically perfect. He's great with her son, he plays the piano and chess and knows about philosophy, he calls her grandma m'am, plus did I mention those muscles. Trouble is, this ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson) is a bit of a bastard, the local sheriff with a rich daddy and a mean possessive streak. He threatens to take the kid away should Beth carry on with this mostly mute Marine and the bulk of the film concerns Beth untying herself from that knot.
I will admit to suppressing a few giddy giggles at some of the film's more shamelessly romantic scenes — two beautiful people falling in love is hard not to blush at — but mostly the film is oddly inert. Logan is a bit too stoic, there's little in the way of character to grab onto. Sure he's got this collection of talents and abilities and he can goof off with the kid, but those are just details. Underneath them there isn't much, and the limits of Efron's acting abilities don't allow him to cover that emptiness up. Schilling, who played Dagny Taggart in the recent Atlas Shrugged movie, has lovely features, but they're mean. She's oddly cast here, and not only because she looks so much older than Efron -- there's a tightness to her, a pinched sort of quality that makes her not terribly sympathetic. And while the two certainly have some physical chemistry in the film, after about the millionth scene of love-filled gazing, I'm pretty sure Efron could have had chemistry with a tree stump. (Or Blythe Danner! Now that would be a movie.) There's nothing particularly special about this romance that makes us root for it in anything but a generic way. "Those two pretty people should kiss! Yay." That's about the level of our engagement by the time the credits roll.
There are a couple of strange plot twists, most involving the ex-husband, that at times threaten to turn the film into a dull thriller, which does not settle well with the rest of the picture's gloopy, glowy sentimentality. I know Sparks likes to add a little bit of excitement to his otherwise linear romances, but scenes involving gunplay and rushing river rapids feel a bit out of hand. Mostly The Lucky One vacillates between pretty and silly, the pretty coming when nobody's talking. Perhaps Efron should give up this corny dialogue business and pursue a career in silent films. He could give Jean Dujardin a call and ask for some pointers. Maybe they could be in a movie together! Boy, that would be nice to look at.
If it's real, gritty, potentially ugly love you want this weekend, instead of storybook romance, then French writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve's new film Goodbye First Love might be your ticket. This deceptively simple story casually spans more than a decade as we watch a young Parisienne named Camille (the avian, arresting Lola Créton) say, well, goodbye to first love.
The film begins when Camille is fifteen and in a hot-n'-heavy romance with an older boy from the suburbs named Sullivan (the seriously pretty Sebastian Urzendowsky). They make love (nobody screws in France, they all make love) and gush over one another like puppies and spend a playing-house weekend at Camille's parents' summer cottage. Things are not entirely rosy though, as Camille, a self-described melancholic, experiences moments of bitter jealousy and abandonment amid all the swooning. But really it's only because she is so utterly, deeply, profoundly in love with this shaggy haired boy. He's very much into her too, but, like many a teenaged lad, he also has itchy feet. He and some buddies have dropped out of school and are planning a ten-month trip to South America while Camille, a young and devoted student, must stay home. (I don't think he'd want her to come anyway.) She begs him to stay with her but he wants to go off adventuring, and so he does, with kisses and professions of love and promises to write letters.
And he does write, for a while. We hear a few of his letters in voiceover as we watch Camille go about her daily life -- school, home, etc. At this point the pace of the film picks up and suddenly it is not ten-months later but two years, then more years. Camille transforms from a petulant teen into a somber young woman, serious about her academics and seemingly content with her not-quite-fully-mended heart. Sullivan's letters stopped coming years before and so she's pressed on with a broken heart, not quite ready to let go but also sick of waiting. The world moves, she moves, and the camera wanders after her.
Camille falls in love with a professor, and he in love with her, and thus begins her adult romantic life, one of shared apartments and careers and a little weary resignation. As this unfolds, Hansen-Løve tends to burst into a scene only to drift out; there's a lilting, lyrical quality to time's passage in the film, and a quietness, a sense of muted melancholy, at work that reminded me of Olivier Assayas' beautiful Summer Hours. There's a Chekhovian/new New Wave vibration running through these films that's both comforting and sad, like the sound of rain on a window.
But yes, Camille has moved on, whatever that means, until of course, about a decade later, she reunites with Sullivan, who is now living in Marseilles and working as a photographer. Camille's many years of healing are quickly undone and they are teenagers again. Wiser, sadder teenagers, but as plungingly in love with each other as they were when they were kids. Will they actually make it this time or will this finally shake this thing loose from Camille and allow her to genuinely move forward? That's the softly stated question of Goodbye First Love, whose title should probably give you some hint to the answer.
Hansen-Løve has made an aching, affecting film, which ends on a wistfully poetic note that feels both sorrowful and hopeful. Like last year's sweetly wrenching American film Like Crazy, Goodbye First Love is a delicate pean to young love, thrilling and urgent and transporting, but of course also fleeting.