(CNN) -- No doubt there is a sizeable audience primed for the latest Nicholas Sparks flick, and chances are quite a chunk of that crowd is looking forward to seeing how former teen idol Zac Efron sizes up now he's graduated from "High School Musical."
Well, he's bulked up quite a bit, and he's sporting something a little more than stubble, but the strong, silent type is not his natural forte.
In "The Lucky One," Efron plays Logan, a Marine with three tours of Iraq under his belt. If he's come out alive he owes it to the photograph of a pretty girl he picks up in the rubble one day -- a snapshot that seems like a lucky talisman, protecting him while so many of his comrades fall. Back home, he swears he will track down his guardian angel and tell her what she has meant to him. The lighthouse in the background gives him a clue as to where to start.
They say that some soldiers develop a thousand-yard stare in combat. Whether that's what the 24-year-old star was aiming for is hard to say, but he sleepwalks through this tearjerker with a blank look and delivers his (admittedly awful) lines with numb detachment. If Efron's going to make it as leading man he's going to have to dig a lot deeper than this.
Because nature abhors a vacuum, Taylor Schilling ("Mercy") steps it up and brings at least a modicum of life to the party as Beth, the divorced Louisiana kennel-owner who happens to be in the market for a dog walker. Having walked all the way from Colorado with his German Shepherd Zeus, Logan seems disturbingly well qualified.
As for the plot, there isn't one. Beth has a gifted, but insecure son (Riley Thomas Stewart), one of those wry grandmas you see in this kind of movie (Blythe Danner), and an ex-husband with a sheriff's badge and a real bad attitude (Jay R. Ferguson, from "Mad Men").
Logan walks the dogs, mends the guttering, fixes the tractor and bonds with the boy. No wonder Beth gets into a lather washing the dishes as she watches him. He even gets her motorboat ticking over again.
Director Scott Hicks ("Shine") bathes the whole show in an amber halo that makes the Deep South look like an antiseptic shampoo commercial and shies away from anything that might be dramatically sticky, complex or even halfway interesting. The ex is such a boorish bully it's laughable when Logan assures him he's "not a bad guy" (this after the drunken cop has threatened to shoot him and his dog); Logan himself has the opposite problem -- he's just too good to be true.
It's nice to see that Sparks believes in virtue and decency and everyone just getting along. But virtue untested is not much of a subject, and this slight, unconvincing romance is a walk on the mild side.