Running on Empty: The Lost Promise of “The Lucky One”

Although they’re merely entertainment, movies often can be thought-provoking and give us a better look at ourselves. The Lucky One had several stories it could have told that would have given the audience something to consider, but it decided instead to give nothing dressed up as something.

It was critically panned, but I decided to watch The Lucky One anyway. Starring Zac Efron, it is based on a 2008 Nicholas Sparks novel in which a returning Marine looks up a woman whose picture seems to have been a lucky charm for him while serving in Iraq.

The movie was just as bad as the critics said it was. The plot was painfully contrived and incorporated numerous romantic clichés, the chemistry between the leads was mediocre, and there was little to no character development. Of course, whenever you embark on a Nicholas Sparks journey, you have to expect these things. I enjoyed the movie, but that was probably because I am a Zac Efrorunningonemptyn fan (he was the only reason I decided to watch it in the first place) and I knew what I was getting into.

What I wasn’t expecting was disappointment with its lost potential. There were several great possible stories in the material, but instead they chose to go for the predictable and the bland.

For example, at the beginning of the movie, Logan (Efron’s character) is shown having several terrible things happen to him in Iraq. He sees several fellow Marines senselessly killed in a night-time raid, he narrowly avoids an explosion that kills several others, and one of his good friends dies right in front of him. Thus, you could safely predict that Logan might suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when he returns home and this does seem to be the case. He has an exaggerated startle response to video game violence and almost physically hurts one of his young nephews who unwisely tries to wake him. Logan realizes he is too damaged to stay, so he sets off with his German shepherd walking from Colorado to Louisiana in order to find Beth, the woman in the picture.

This is just the first instance where the movie could have had something interesting to say but didn’t. One of the horrible outcomes of our wars in the Middle East has been the countless veterans who are physically and/or emotionally damaged from their service. And it isn’t just the veterans themselves who are affected by this, but their families as well. Many returning service members do not seem able to function in regular society because of their PTSD, and many have difficulty finding employment. Sometimes their families are thrown into disarray because of how they’ve changed while away. The military appears either unable or unwilling to provide the help they need, so many veterans like Logan are left to suffer on their own.

Instead of ignoring Logan’s healing process (or subtly implying it), the movie could have showcased the ways he found to heal himself. We briefly hear him talk about walking as a therapeutic technique, but they could have explored that further or depicted working with animals, fixing things up, music, and being close to nature as healing methods. This would have made Logan a much more textured character and provided some much-needed depth to his relationship with Beth. Yet most of what we got was Logan looking solemn (which, by the way, was a huge waste of Zac Efron’s usual charm).

The character of Beth also suffered from lost potential. She is a single mother living with her grandmother and co-parenting with Keith, her son’s father, who is both a cop and the son of a local wealthy judge with political aspirations. The movie could have done without the hackneyed storyline of the powerful jerk of an ex-husband and instead explored the rich dynamics of many divorced families.

As a family psychologist, I deal with the fall-out of divorce and am familiar with the struggles many have whenever new significant others enter their lives. Often, this is when the rubber meets the road of escalating conflict, as the divorced parents fully confront the reality of not having much control over all aspects of their children’s lives. Many also fear for their place in their children’s hearts and worry that they will be replaced. Many try to regain control by seeking legal alternatives, and they become tied up in court for years. This isn’t good for anyone, yet it is something that many divorced families experience.

As it did with Logan’s PTSD, the movie briefly touched on these aspects. At one point, Keith tells Beth that she cannot dictate how he parents when Ben, their son, is with him. In another scene, Keith is shown looking both proud and worried as he sees that Logan has bonded with Ben and helped him overcome his fear of playing his violin in public.

Keith also threatens Beth that if she doesn’t do what he wants her to do (i.e., send Logan packing), he will try to get full custody of Ben. Beth then has to decide whether she will allow herself to be bullied by Keith or risk losing her son. All of these are typical problems faced by divorced families, and seeing the parents work through them would have given the story complexity and believability. However, instead of handling these conflicts realistically, the movie opts to make Keith a villain who (spoiler alert) ultimately has his worst fear come true as he dies and literally hands Ben to Logan so that he can become his new father.

If you’ve noticed, the previous two paragraphs were ostensibly about Beth, but wound up being mostly about Keith. And there is the problem with Beth. We know that she struggles to be a good mother, that she’s grieving the death of her brother and, of course, that she will fall for Logan. (Who wouldn’t? He’s way too perfect.) But beyond that, we don’t know much about Beth at all. Instead of allowing her to be a real person, all she’s shown to be is the object of Logan’s interest. This is not unusual for romantic movies but it’s a fatal flaw.

Okay, so the movie could have been much more interesting. Who cares? No one goes to see Nicholas Sparks movies expecting to use their brain. My point is that they should. Entertainment is one big way in which we can feel the cultural zeitgeist, a method in which we decide what issues we as a society want to care about. Sure, there are the people who go to see Important Movies that impart a social message, but why not give those who just want a bit of enjoyment something to think about as well? Too many movies have been dumbed down, so much so that they’ve almost rendered the use of writers irrelevant. And that is a shame. Movies can still be entertaining while also incorporating real life problems and layered characters, and their quality would be enhanced through doing so.

The Lucky One could have been a good movie. If they had showed Logan healing from PTSD, then Zac Efron could have really turned on his star wattage and made it much more enjoyable to watch. Had the movie given Beth a true personality and also showed how she figured out how to co-parent effectively with Keith, then she would have been much more relatable, and I might even have been moved by her ability to move forward despite adversity. Yet they went for the tired clichés and boring plot, so much so that the movie should have been called, The Dull One.

Semper Fidelis is the Marine Corps motto. It is Latin for ‘always faithful’ and is supposed to guide Marines to remain faithful to the mission at hand, to each other, to the Corps and to country. The movie emphasized Logan’s status as a Marine and it is too bad the creators didn’t use the USMC motto as a guiding principle: to remain faithful to a good story; to the people who worked on the movie; and to us, the audience. By showing a thoughtful representation of PTSD and co-parenting, it might have even been good for the country.

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