With Miley Cyrus, Greg Kinnear, Liam Hemsworth. Rated PG for thematic material, some violence, sensuality and mild language. 108 minutes.
Critics eager to tear into THE LAST SONG, yet another three-hanky picture based on the works of “A Walk to Remember,” “The Notebook” and “Dear John” author Nicholas Sparks, ought to take a look at film history. Such movies were often derided as “tearjerkers”and “women’s pictures.” Yet today movies like “Back Street,” “Now, Voyager” and “Magnificent Obsession” are treated with respect for addressing women’s issues or having a distinctive style. No such claim will be made here for “The Last Song,” at least not yet, though let’s at least leave open the possibility that decades from now this film might offer a window into early 21st century life in a way that “Transformers” and “Alice in Wonderland” do not. (At the very least, it provides Miley Cyrus, best known for her alter ego “Hannah Montana,” an opportunity to show she can act.)
Sparks, who co-wrote the script with Jeff Van Wie, gives us the usual formula, from a romantic couple from different walks of life to lives about to be changed by a fatal disease. Here, Cyrus is Ronnie Miller who comes from New York to Florida to spend a summer with her father Steve (Greg Kinnear). Her younger brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) adores his dad, but Ronnie is a misfit. She’s let her grades plummet, has rejected admission to Julliard, and been arrested for shoplifting. She spurns her father’s attempt to reach out to her.
In the hokiest of “meet cutes” – Will (Liam Hemsworth) bumps into her and spills her drink while playing volleyball – she soon finds herself in a romance. Of course both have family secrets that are slowly revealed, and Ronnie has to decide if she will be open to love, of a romantic kind from Will and of a parental kind from her father. You don’t have to have seen the other Sparks films to know where it’s going.
Unlike the recent “Dear John,” which was contrived in the extreme, the characters here bear a passing resemblance to actual human beings. If Ronnie comes around too quickly, the fault is more with the screenplay than with Cyrus, who manages to make you forget the broad slapstick she plays as Disney’s poster girl and instead conveys genuine adolescence surliness. If her goal was to demonstrate that she can be more than a tween idol, she succeeds admirably.
Kinnear is likable as the father, but once again he’s playing a flawed character, this time a musician who is suspected – for reasons that remain murky until late in the film – of having set fire to a church. It would be nice to see him playing a normal person for a change. As for Hemsworth, he’s the male equivalent of Megan Fox, providing eye candy for the female viewers. His character may be underdeveloped but he looks buff with his shirt off which he gets to do frequently.
In short, “The Last Song” gives its target audience what they want: a chance to enjoy a love story, shed some tears, and ogle the hunky Hemsworth while casting themselves in the Miley Cyrus role. It’s pretty predictable, but if critics years from now discover things not noticed by contemporary audiences let it be noted that at least one reviewer declined to simply treat this as wholesale romantic trash.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.