Every time you go to a new movie based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, you do so believing that it can’t be as bad as the last, but somehow they always manage to exceed one’s lowest expectations. “The Best of Me” represents the bottom of the barrel—so far.
Employing bits and pieces of his usual formula, Sparks here—as adapted, unimaginatively, by J. Mills Goodloe and Will Fetters and directed, flaccidly, by Michael Hoffman—spins a tale of doomed romance that shifts back and forth between present and past. The contemporary sections show Dawson Cole (James Marsden), an oil-rig worker, and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan), reuniting after more than two decades (“but who’s counting?” Dawson tiresomely notes) for the funeral of an old friend, Tuck Hostetler (Gerald McRaney). In flashback we see Dawson (Luke Bracey), the shy, abused son of Tommy (Sean Bridgers), a feral criminal, and Amanda (Liana Liberato), the daughter of a wealthy businessman (Jon Tenney), become high-school sweethearts, especially after Dawson escapes Tommy’s clutches and the widowed Tuck, a gruff but lovable fellow, takes him in, offering him protection as a surrogate father might. Their idyllic young romance is endangered, of course, by Mr. Collier’s crude attempt to break it up; but it’s really derailed by Tommy’s violent assault on Tuck, to which Dawson responds with in a way that has a tragic result. During a stint in prison, Dawson decides that continuing their relationship would be a mistake and rejects Amanda’s attempts to see him.
Now Tuck, as he approached the end, provided for Dawson and Amanda to inherit his property—including the remote lake house where they once enjoyed each other’s company—jointly, as a stratagem to bring them back together and finally embrace the love they never should have given up on. The posthumous plan is successful, even though Amanda has a teen son (Ian Nelson), since her marriage to alcoholic investment honcho Frank Reynolds (Sebastian Arcelus) has become a loveless affair. Just as it seems that Dawson and Amanda might finally have come to terms with the fact that they’re obviously meant for each other, however, tragedy intervenes—two tragedies, in fact, which are combined in one final, staggeringly mawkish tearjerker twist.
From all this it should be clear that “The Best of Me” is rife with the most crushingly obvious Sparksisms, from stereotypical characters to inane plotting and pseudo-profound observations about life and love. It’s the sort of loony romantic tripe that’s ready-made for the chick-flick oriented Lifetime network, where the picture will undoubtedly find a home in due course. But it’s made even worse by the casting. Neither Marsden and Monaghan, on the one hand, nor Bracey and Liberato, on the other, make an especially compelling couple, but the fact that there’s almost no physical similarity between the younger and older versions of the characters is a pretty fatal flaw. Perhaps “Boyhood” has spoiled us in this regard, but even with the most egregious suspension of disbelief it’s impossible to believe that Bracey could grow up to be Marsden, or Liberato Monaghan. That’s a crucial flaw, and allowing the actors around them—McRaney, Arcelus, Tenney and especially Bridgers, who should really have a moustache to twirl—to chew the scenery so mercilessly, as Hoffman does, worsens the situation further. The movie would be risible even under the best of circumstances, but thanks to the director and his cast, these are far from the best of circumstances.
The movie is nicely made from a technical perspective, as one might expect of a picture for which Sparks himself served on the production team, with locations that are as pretty as the four leading actors, cinematography by Oliver Stapleton that makes the images glow with a warmth the story itself lacks, and a score by Aaron Zigman that keeps pushing for viewers’ tear ducts to well up. But unless one has a propensity to weep over meretricious claptrap of the Sparksian sort, the conclusion of “The Best of Me” is more likely to find you suppressing snickers rather than sobs. As for whether it will represent the worst of Sparks, only time will tell—but if his track record is anything to go by, it won’t.