Sparks’ ‘Best’ lacks any sparks

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“The Best of Me” is the latest romantic drama adapted from the Nicholas Sparks novel mill.

Dawson Cole (James Marsden) is a strapping 39-year-old oil rig worker. Following an explosion, he is thrown into the water, where he is submerged for hours. Miraculously, Dawson survives the accident. The film offers no credible explanation for this. Are we to assume that Dawson has remained alive as the result of divine intervention? Does God have a mission in store for him?

Shortly thereafter, Dawson learns of the death of his childhood mentor, Tuck (Gerald McRaney). Dawson is summoned to his hometown in Louisiana bayou for the reading of Tuck’s will. There, he has a reunion with his one-time high school girlfriend, Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan).

Dawson and Amanda have not seen one another for twenty-one years. The vibe between them is altogether strange. There is no evidence of any vestigial emotional connection, be it long-simmering passion or antipathy. They act as if they are two people, who were casual acquaintances in a bygone era.

Befitting a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, we have the first in a series of intermittent flashbacks, replete with a different pair of actors playing the younger version of the leads. Perhaps, these flashbacks will help explain the oddly detached dynamic between Dawson and Amanda.

A screen capture from the trailer to "The Best of Me" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrEvBiqoeRc

A screen capture from the trailer to “The Best of Me” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrEvBiqoeRc

Cue the sound track for tunes from the Spin Doctors and Toad the Wet Sprocket-we have arrived in the early nineties. Dawson (now Luke Bracey) is a conventionally handsome teenager. Inexplicably, he has much more refined sensibilities than the other members of his extended white-trash family. His relatives resent Dawson and heap an ongoing barrage of verbal abuse on him. The pater familias, Tommy (a perpetually glowering Sean Bridgers), augments this by routinely beating Dawson.

One day, a cute, peppy Amanda (now Liana Liberato) encounters Dawson in a traffic jam. Amanda hails from a prestigious local family. However, the fact that Dawson’s clan is poor makes no matter to her. Ditto for the fact that Dawson exhibits a pathologically low sense of self-esteem. Amanda is hopelessly smitten with Dawson. Even when the socially maladroit Dawson proves refractory to her blatant flirtations, she remains undaunted.

Following another beat down by Tommy, Dawson breaks into Tuck’s auto repair shop, seeking overnight refuge from his dysfunctional family. Since Tuck is a compassionate widower, he takes Dawson under his wing. Tuck also helps nurture the fledgling romance between Dawson and Amanda.

Alas, a fluke set of circumstances makes a fugitive out of Dawson. Will the probate of Tuck’s estate reignite the love that once existed between the high schoolers decades before?

Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novels have generated a series of commercially successful movies. This includes “Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember,” “The Notebook,” and most recently, “Nights in Rodanthe.”

The screenplay for “The Best of Me,” by Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe, has many of the formulaic elements of a Sparks’ adaptation. True love, class prejudice, characters wrestling with their Christian faith, far-fetched coincidences, an over-plotted third act, and a bittersweet denouement are all front and center. In addition, the young leads may be horny adolescents, but the amorous activities remain subdued.

Some will notice that the film is set in the deep South, but there is scant evidence that non-white permutations of the species exist. In addition, there seem to be no females in Dawson’s extended family. What’s with that?

As in “The Notebook,” there is a poorly matched set of actors portraying the co-protagonists in two different periods of their respective lives. Paul Walker had originally been cast as the male lead before his untimely vehicular death.  James Marsden does a nice job filling in for him. He exudes a strong screen presence and a nice if restrained chemistry with Michelle Monaghan. Even given the filmmakers’ decision to use a separate actor to portray a younger version of Marsden’s character, Luke Bracey represents a disconcertingly bad casting decision. He does not bear a particularly strong resemblance towards Marsden. Moreover, the twenty-five Aussie’s portrayal of a teenybopper strains credulity. Worst of all, Bracey provides a flat performance is devoid of charisma. It is difficult to imagine that he will eventually morph into the vastly more handsome and appealing Marsden.

Director, Michael Hoffman (“The Last Station,” “Gambit”), does a mediocre job of helming this work. There isn’t a single dramatically compelling scene in the entire film, only several unintentionally funny ones.

“The Best of Me” may be derived from a novel by Nicholas Sparks. However, it is totally lacking in onscreen sparks.

THE BEST OF ME * PG-13 (for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language) 117 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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