The Nicholas Sparks idea well is running dry – also, hey, how come the guy hasn’t tried to kill anyone by tossing them down a well yet? surely, that has to be coming soon – and the prolific author has started cribbing from his own material to slap together lackluster storylines that only approximate genuine feelings, emotional ether floating on the breeze. The latest film to be adapted from Sparks’ written works, Michael Hoffman’s The Best of Me is rife with plotlines pulled from other Sparks features – kid cancer, car accidents, using an interest in astronomy to prove that someone is smart, disapproving parents, a small Southern town (always a small Southern town, someone introduce Sparks to the North for chrissakes), trademark shocking deaths – but everything is so loosely cobbled together that the film feels closer to a cinematic adaptation of Nicholas Sparks-branded Mad Libs than it does an actual feature.
There is, however, one thing that Sparks is still damn good at portraying: the idiocy of first love. But while Sparks’ stories are so often occupied with showing good-looking teens pawing away at each other (and, yes, also pawing away at deep emotions), Sparks steadfastly refuses to face the truth of what he’s writing. These kids are dumb. First love is not the end-all and be-all. The person you are at age seventeen is not the (cough cough) best version of yourself, and continuing to base books and movies on such ideals is, frankly, as immature as anything you’ll find in the average American high school. These things – these emotions – don’t endure. But they do in Sparkstown, U.S.A., and both the author and his characters’ resistance to growing up is the worst part of the majority of his films. (And, no, we’re not forgetting about films like Message in a Bottle or Nights in Rodanthe, as it’s fairly obvious that the typical Sparks story is still about dum-dum teens.)
The latest entry in the Sparks opus may star a pair of extremely likable adults – Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden, who should definitely star in another romance together, though not one from Sparks – but it’s still a film about dum-dum teens. Told partially in the present day and mostly flashback, The Best of Me centers on pretty Southern belle Amanda (Monaghan in the later years, Liana Liberato as a teen) and the handsome and haunted Dawson (Marsden as an adult, Luke Bracey as a teen) and their (shockingly!) ill-fated romance. We first meet the pair as adults, with Dawson toiling on an oil rig, where he passes the time by reading books by Stephen Hawking and looking dreamily to the night sky. Amanda looks to the same night sky, less dreamy and more haunted, saddled with a drunk and unfeeling husband (Sebastian Arcelus) and secrets to spare.
Sparks has seemingly always relished killing characters off, and though Dawson almost dies pretty early on – the oil rig explodes, duh – the action of The Best of Me is rooted in another death. Mere days after Dawson almost bites it (the world’s worst doctor declares his survival “a miracle!”), both he and Amanda receive calls from Prototypical Southern Lawyer, who informs that their good pal Tuck (Gerald McRaney) is dead, and he’s got some stuff to give them (read: he’s trying to get these idiots back together so that they can heal up twenty-odd years of wounds).
The Best of Me is needlessly convoluted, overwrought and silly, and its time-switching conceit does it zero favors. Dawson and Amanda clearly didn’t work out in their younger years, and the approach screenwriters Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe take to explaining the whys and hows of their broken romance inflate it into some big secret, one that simply doesn’t deliver. Bad things happened, a lot of tears were shed and two decades later, these people are still reeling from it. The details don’t matter. (If nothing else, the copious flashback sections do provide a hilarious look at Dawson’s meth-making brethren and a white trash homestead so over-the-top that it includes a garbage can fire, a house with some definite hoarding issues and a nefarious father who looks staggeringly like a ventriloquist dummy.)
Hoffman’s film at least benefits from some generally good casting – Monaghan and Marsden are lovely together, as are Liberato and Bracey, seeing McRaney on the big screen is a real treat, and Arcelus is excellent at working the “vaguely dirtbag-y” angle – but there’s one piece of it that simply doesn’t gel. While Monaghan and Liberato effectively and easily portray the same character, Marsden and Bracey do not even remotely resemble each other – not in looks, in body type, in performance.
This quibble, while it may seem minor, is detrimental to the entire film, because it causes the two love stories to feel entirely disconnected. It doesn’t feel as if you’re watching the same characters, and that provides a tremendous distance between the stories, never allowing “Dawson and Amanda” to feel like a single, cohesive story, even a dumb one.
The Upside: The cast is solid and extremely likable, Sparks continues to nail the passion and idiocy of first love.
The Downside: Its time-switching conceit makes it difficult to feel attached, Luke Bracey and James Marsden’s dissimilar looks are distracting, is entirely without logic, ham-fisted emotions, void of nuance, not engaging.
On the Side: Paul Walker was originally cast to play Dawson, but after the actor passed away last year, the role went to Marsden, who had previously played a jilted lover in Sparks’ most beloved feature, The Notebook.