(On Cable TV, December 2018) Here are the facts: The Lucky One is a romantic drama based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. I should just stop the review right here, because you already have all of what’s required to make up your mind about the movie and whether you’re likely to enjoy it. Most Sparks novels are built according to a similar melodramatic template, and this similarity is not helped at all by bland casting and unremarkable direction. The story has to do with a soldier making his way back from Iraq to a woman whose picture he found during combat, but really that’s just an extra-melodramatic setup for a “stranger comes into town” plot à la Safe Haven. It ends pretty much how you’d expect, which is tautologically the only way it could end up given the expectations of its audience. If it sounds as if I’m exasperated by the result, that’s true only up to a certain point. Past that, the film delivers exactly what it intends, and there is some atmospheric attractiveness in small-town romance stories with added dramatic flair. (Plus Zac Efron and/or Taylor Schilling. Although I’m getting old enough now that Blythe Danner is starting to look like the cute one in the film.) The Lucky One is the kind of movie that it wants to be, and you’d don’t have to see it if you don’t want to.
(On TV, February 2017) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Lasse Hallström and Nicholas Sparks in Dear John. With those four names together, you almost don’t have to do anything else to describe the result. Of course, it’s going to be an overlong (Hallström) weepy romantic drama (Nicholas Sparks) featuring a sympathetic hunk (Tatum) and a likable petite blonde (Seyfried). Any other questions? Oh, sure, the point of those films is in the details and side characters such as Richard Jenkins’ autistic father, likable in a difficult role. It’s about the homespun wisdom that kind of works even as it’s melodramatic (“Now I have two small holes in me. I’m no longer in perfect condition.”) It’s about familiar dialogue and situations that allow viewers to immerse themselves in characters that could be just like them. It’s about knowing where the journey takes us and being comforted by it. It’s not about wit or originality or being challenged or reflecting on the anxious years following 9/11. It’s not about anything else but what you see on the tin. Dear John works at what it tries to be, but it doesn’t try to be very ambitious.
(On TV, November 2016) What?, you say, Kevin Costner playing an idealized stoic male loner figure designed to make women swoon? Well, yes. Message in a Bottle, predictably adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, starts with a mystery (who is the man who would write such a heartbreaking letter and toss it off to sea in a bottle?) and gradually ends on the trail of a sensitive model of masculinity, still grieving over the loss of his wife in a picturesque eastern seaboard town. Cue the waterworks, cue the stirring music, cue the sage old man, cue the lies that lead to rifts, cue just about everything that such Nicholas Sparks-inspired movies have. It’s mechanistic and calculated and cynical and obvious and it still works in some fashion. It helps that the actors are good at what they do: Costner is Costner, obviously, but Robin Wright makes for a suitably bland heroine and Paul Newman shows up as a wizened old man. Throw in Ileana Douglas as spunky comic relief and Robbie Coltrane as a gruff boss and the clichés just write themselves into comforting lines. The audiences for this kind of movie are self-identified—the rest of us might as well not even try to comment.