There is no disputing author Nicholas Sparks' mainstream appeal as a literary romance novelist. Having sold a reported eighty-five million copies, he sticks to a tried-and-true formula and delivers what is expected of him. As much as Spark writes about love, however, one could argue that he is also a masochist who likes destroying his characters' happily ever afters. "The Best of Me," based on his 2011 best-seller, is so familiar that it almost fools the viewer into assuming the story will lead in an alternate direction. Director Michael Hoffman (2002's "The Emperor's Club
") and screenwriters Will Fetters (2012's "The Lucky One
") and J. Mills Goodloe cross off each bullet point in the Cliché 101 Handbook, their piéce de résistance
being a cornball deus ex machina
twist in the third act that is worthy of no less than a literal palm-slap to the forehead. Despite its rampant banalities, "The Best of Me" would still be a pleasant, bittersweet tale full of pretty places and pretty faces were it not for one even more damning misstep: the perplexing casting of a young actor who looks nothing at all like his older counterpart.
39-year-old Dawson Cole (James Marsden) has no sooner narrowly survived an oil rig accident when he receives word that a special person from his past, Tuck Hostetler (Gerald McRaney), has passed away. Called back to his Louisiana hometown for the reading of his will, Dawson is reunited with former teenage love Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) for the first time in over two decades. Amanda has been married for eighteen years and is about to send her son off to college, but the reappearance of Dawson reignites feelings inside of her that she has tried to let go. As they head off together to spread Tuck's ashes at the cottage he once built for his late wife, Dawson and Amanda are confronted not only with the possibility of rekindling their relationship, but also the events from their past that originally tore them apart.
Seguing between the present-day narrative and flashbacks to Dawson and Amanda's 18-year-old selves (played by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato), "The Best of Me" checks the boxes on every old-hat platitude one would expect to find in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. There is the star-crossed romance between a privileged girl and a smart but troubled boy from the wrong side of the tracks. There is a wealthy, status-obsessed parentin this case, Amanda's dad, Harvey (Jon Tenney)who offers to pay his daughter's beau $80,000 if he agrees to stop seeing her. People spout things like, "The prodigal son returns!" and "You want me to fall back in love with you? How can I do that if I've never stopped?" There is the hope for second chances, and bitter circumstances that cut them short. There is disease, and untimely tragedy, and famine (okay, there's no famine). One can sense the creaky machinations of the plot grinding away, just as one skilled in the ways of Sparks will figure out where things are going before they happen, and then recoil at the convoluted nerve of its conception.
Every movie is better with Michelle Monaghan (2011's "Source Code
") in it, and this one is no exception. Granted, the lukewarm script is beneath her, but Monaghan gives Amandaa woman whose life has not turned out at all like she had planneda melancholy longing and depth that transcends the contrivances around her. As the younger, more hopeful Amanda, Liana Liberato (2014's "If I Stay
") is spirited and thoughtful, an ideal match for Monaghan. As Tuck, a widower who takes Dawson in when the boy runs away from his miserable homelife, Gerald McRaney (2012's "Red Tails
") brings an affecting dignity and goodness to his key supporting turn. Others, like a convincingly slimy Sean Bridgers (2013's "Jug Face
") as Dawson's antagonistic, abusive old man Tommy, Jon Tenney (2011's "Green Lantern
") as Amanda's egotistical father, and Sebastian Arcelus as Amanda's inconsiderate, alcoholic husband Frank, are stuck firmly in one-note roles.
Unfortunately, the most ruinous issue arises when it comes to lead Dawson. James Marsden (2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler
") is solid as the elder version of the character, but there is a distinct emotional disconnect with the romantic relationship at the film's center because of the haphazard casting of 25-year-old Luke Bracey (2013's "G.I. Joe: Retaliation
") as the younger Dawson. In addition to not in any way, shape or form looking like a teenager, he also shares a nonexistent resemblance to Marsden. By himself, Bracey (a Sean Bean lookalike) is very good, navigating the hefty pressures and conflicts of his character as he seeks to make something of himself while breaking free from the stronghold of his seedy criminal upbringing. Because Marsden and Bracey do not have even remotely similar physical features, though, it is impossible to buy into them as the same person. Thus, when the plot moves between its two timelines, the viewer is left watching what feels like two different characters interacting with Amanda. It is not Bracey's fault that he is so ill-suited for the part, but every person who had a hand in hiring him has some definite explaining to do.
"The Best of Me" is lushly photographed by Oliver Stapleton (2012's "The Guilt Trip
") and its early-'90s soundtrack (featuring recognizable songs from Toad the Wet Sprocket, Spin Doctors and The Lemonheads) helps to give credence and texture to its flashback segments. Less cohesive is the over-the-top, seemingly anachronistic depiction of Dawson's family, who look and act more like backwoods moonshiners from the early 20th century than drug operators from a modern era. The film holds one's attention, but so stringently adheres to every labored convention of Nicholas Sparks' ouevre that there is little room for spontaneity left. "The Best of Me" is content to remain a by-the-numbers excursion into tough-to-swallow soap opera theatrics. At this point, even Sparks himself should know better.