With James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Gerald McRaney. Written by J. Mills Goodloe and Will Fetters. Directed by Michael Hoffman. Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language. 117 minutes.
Now is the time to invest in companies making tissues and handkerchiefs because the new Nicholas Sparks movie is opening. Sparks is to treacly romance what Stephen King is to horror: someone who keeps grinding it out books with the inevitable movie to follow. The quality of the work is beside the point. He has his audience.
If you’re not familiar with his body of work, it includes “The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Safe Haven.” They all feature star-crossed lovers who–in the movie versions, at least–are beautiful even when they have to suffer. Sparks’ strategy is to get the reader/viewer invested in his romantic leads, and then make life as difficult as possible for them. The tears soon flow.
THE BEST OF ME may be the worst Sparks movie yet. The problem isn’t in the casting or the production values. It’s in the utterly contrived plot which followed a tired formula and then throws in twists that will either have you weeping or gagging. The formula is to get two people together who have all sorts of things to keep them apart… except for their true love.
Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) lives a comfortable life with a son she adores, but whose husband is more interested in his business contacts than his marriage. When she learns that someone in her hometown has died and has left a bequest for her, she goes back over her husband’s objections. Meanwhile, Dawson (James Marsden), who works on an oil rig, has received a similar letter. As it turns out, Amanda and Dawson were high school sweethearts, but he was from the wrong side of the tracks. Her father tries to buy Dawson off. His father is a violent thug who resents his son’s interest in getting an education. It’s a match that could only exist in Sparksworld.
In flashbacks, we see the younger Amanda (Liana Liberato) and Dawson (Luke Bracey) and learn how they met and fell in love. They find a safe haven at the home of Tuck (Gerald McRaney), a cantankerous widower who has–wouldn’t you know it–a heart of gold. It is Tuck’s passing that reunites Amanda and Dawson in the present.
How the story plays out, with several unexpected accidents, attacks, and deaths, will not be spoiled here. You either buy it or you don’t and there are a lot of people willing to swallow this whole. Suffice to say that this movie could be used to define the word “contrived.”
The young leads (both the teen and adult versions), play the material straight, agonizing over the romantic setbacks, and looking both blissful and beautiful when things are working out right. McRaney provides some welcome gruffness as Tuck, helping the film escape from being total mush. Sean Bridgers is menacing at Dawson’s criminal father, yet is trapped in a character with no backstory, so he’s simply “the villain” without the film giving us any sense of how he sees himself.
Which gets us back to the problem of Nicholas Sparks. His writing is what might be described as romantic porn. It’s not that the brief sex scenes are anything less than tasteful and discreet. It’s that, like traditional pornography, “The Best of Me” has no purpose other than to get a specific reaction, in this case making the audience think they’re learning something about love when all that’s really happening is that they are being stimulated into giving up their tears… and their ticket money.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.