The Best of Me (2014) / Romance-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: James Marsden, Michelle Monahan, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Gerald McRaney, Sean Bridgers, Sebastian Arcelus
Director: Michael Hoffman
Screenplay: J. Mills Goodloe, Will Fetters (based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks)
Review published October 16, 2014
I don't know what the "best of me" of the title is referring to, but if this is the best, then I definitely do not want to see what the worst might be. Even 'middling' might be too much to bear. Or perhaps, The Best of Me is the best title for it, as it does play like a "Greatest Hits" of Nicholas Sparks clichés, right down to the "pretty actors about to kiss" poster. Most who've sat through (or should I say, suffered through) a bevy of Sparks adaptations (The Best of Me represents the ninth thus far) should know what to expect: lovers who can't easily be together, families who try to wedge them apart, and tragedies that become major obstacles. Just changes the names, settings, and nature of the tragedies/illnesses, and you're set for another heartbreaking story of perfect romance gone awry.
Taking over for a role originally slated for the late Paul Walker, James Marsden (Walk of Shame, Anchorman 2) is cast as the older Dawson Cole, an oil rig hero who is coming home to small-town Louisiana in order to attend the will reading and subsequent dispersal of the crematory ashes of Tuck (McRaney, Red Tails), a kindly elderly man he befriended in his senior year in high school. He's not the only invitee, as Amanda Collier (Monaghan, Better Living Through Chemistry) is the only other person on the list, the once great love of Dawson's life, before circumstances pushed them apart (the film doesn't get into how two inseparable lovebirds would ever grow up without each other until late into the film). They haven't seen each other for about two decades, and their reunion rekindles an old flame that has never died out for either of them, despite Amanda now being a wife and mother.
The best part of The Best of Me is the cast, who all do relatively well, given that their characterizations are bland and without much distinction. Marsden and Monaghan have an easygoing chemistry together that makes them entertaining to watch, even if their dialogue isn't exactly scintillating with interesting topics of conversation. Marsden is all stereotypical good-ol'-boy who drives a pickup, drinks Budweiser, listens to country music, wears tight blue jeans, fixes up things real good (but needs some help with cooking), and smiles more than he says. He's only a canine companion away from purchasing the complete romantic Southern Beau Kit (tm). Monaghan, well, all that's required of her is to look good and be an admirer of just how good Dawson is, but respect must be given her for actually making Amanda seem like a character with real emotions. Monaghan gives it way more than it deserves, and probably single-handedly is the reason the movie works at all in some scenes.
In a series of lengthy flashbacks, the younger Dawson and Amanda are played by Luke Bracey (The November Man, GI Joe Retaliation) and Liana Liberato (If I Stay, Free Ride) -- a winsome couple to be sure were it not for the fact that Bracey is 25 years old and could pass for 32, while Liberato is 19 and could pass for 15. They don't particularly look like their older counterparts, but, what's worse is that their personalities are also wildly different, to the point where you have to keep reminding yourself that you're not watching two separate stories, causing for perpetual distraction in a film that really can't afford any scrutiny.
The romance is depicted in racy terms that seems like it will push the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, but it's mostly fit for television save for a little more writhing. What does feel out of place is the amount of violence in this otherwise gentle movie, and it rears its ugly head all too often when the movie appears to be finding something akin to a groove. You might ask, "What possible violence could there be? Must be the jealous husband catching them in the act!" Oh no -- if only that could have happened.
Instead, what we get is a wildly overblown portrayal of a self-referenced 'white trash' family of criminals led by an abusive patriarch, Tommy Cole (yes, Dawson's dad) that would give Woody Harrelson's similar character in Out of the Furnace a run for his money. Every time this family appears, you'll be aching for movie theaters to install a fast-forward button, as it is exactly what you think it is: a manufactured plot device of ugliness to contrast the sweetness of the romance, and to provide a showdown at the movie's overblown climax.
Directed by Michael Hoffman (The Emperor's Club, One Fine Day), the soft-focus movie is put together in a wholly unimaginative fashion that makes it all so hard to remember once you're in the stage of trying to remember where your car is parked after the credits roll. If you ever see a movie in which tidy homes that characters have lived in their entire lives are mostly devoid of personal effects, save what's necessary for the plot at hand, you know you're in for a less-than-insightful movie. It's all too clean, too neat, too perfect to ever buy as a real romance, feeling like we've entered someone's idealized fantasy about how life and love should truly be.
I didn't come into this film with high expectations, knowing that the target demographic for this movie doesn't include me in about ten different ways, but I always strive to keep an open mind. After all, I do really like The Notebook, which is an effective way to do this kind of glossy romance right. As contrived and agonizingly clichéd as it generally is, the film manages to stay just afloat enough to be innocuous entertainment until the final half hour, during which it really tries to go all out with powerhouse finale that will greatly disappoint even those who have been on board for the movie throughout. It is a truly abysmal and wholly incredible way to end a movie that is already 30 minutes too long to begin with.
And as far as whether it's an effective tragic romance, you'll probably be rolling your eyes too much at the story contrivances to bother shedding the tears intended.
©2014 Vince Leo