If “The Best of Me,” the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation to show up on the big screen, were to be given a report card, it’d be one of those oddly polarized documents that confuse parents and dismay teachers: Straight A’s for chemistry, but F’s in basic composition, drama, creative writing, and every other subject.
Telling the story of Dawson and Amanda — high school sweethearts torn apart by cruel fate but reunited later in life when the death of a mutual friend brings them back to the small town where they grew up — “The Best of Me” has, to its sole credit, a great cast: James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan play the current version of our star-crossed lovers, with Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato as their 1992 teenaged selves.
All four are charismatic and easy to watch, with a natural and engaging connection inside both couples regardless of timeline. (There is, in fact, one cross-time cut with a hint of flair — like John Sayles‘ in-camera time jumps in the classic “Lone Star” — but other than that, the film simply stumbles between eras.)
The bad news is that no matter how charming or fizzy the chemistry between the actors might be, they’re still trapped in the dead, fake melodrama and brainless coincidences of a Nicholas Sparks story. Sparks’ best-selling novels and many film adaptations (“The Lucky One,” “The Notebook,” “Safe Haven,” et al.) have cemented his position as the Thomas Kinkade of American novels — stunningly tacky yet strangely popular, a brand defined by its blandness. Sparks’ stories are to actual romance what pro wrestling is to actual sports: A loud, overdone mix of sweaty clinches and implausible events leading to a conclusion you knew well before the start, never mind before the end.
Director Michael Hoffman (“One Fine Day,” the recently dumped “Gambit” remake) shoots in Louisiana, where the weather is conducive to sweat-sheened makeouts and the tax breaks are conducive to low-cost film making. The script, by Will Fetters (who’s written a prior Sparks-daptation, “The Lucky One”) and J. Mills Goodloe, withholds and withdraws every time it might explain why Dawson and Amanda’s high school love in 1992 fell apart in the name of building fake suspense.
Goodloe and Fetters are also not helped by Sparks’ novel itself, which requires huge amounts of coincidence and tragedy to move forward much like a SUV demands constant fill-ups. And the dialogue, with soapy clunkers like “I know you love my daughter … but I can’t have her anywhere near your family” and “At the end of it all, I can say what it was like to love someone,” is so square and heavy it lands with a thud the instant it leaves the actor’s mouths.
With its never-ending string of secret wills, tragic accidents, felonies, failures, letters left behind by the recently deceased, and criminal parents replaced by kindly mentors, “The Best of Me” attains a state of humid hysteria as its characters kiss in the rain, fight in the dirt, and cry out all their feelings. But it’s all formula, and a formula as pernicious and as profitable as any comic-book movie or other franchise defined primarily by the Roman numerals after its title.
The technical workings of the film are all top-notch, even if it seems it’s a shame that, for example, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton — who has shot films as diverse and distinct as “Earth Girls Are Easy,” “The Cider House Rules,” and “The Shipping News” — is reduced to capturing shirtless men gardening or long pans of Spanish moss hanging from the trees.
Editor Matt Chesse, after cutting challenging films like “World War Z” and “Warrior,” now has to sew together off-the-rack montages, where our leads dine on crawfish and laugh as a jangling song selection from the unremarkable soundtrack plays over any and all dialogue.
A fish, as the saying goes, rots from the head down, and it’s Sparks, with his tacky writing and postcard-simple version of every subject from romance to relationships to sin to the South, who’s the source of that rot here. With a seemingly endless series of endings — surely meant to tie up loose ends but instead strangling any sign of life out of what has gone before — “The Best of Me” epitomizes the worst of modern big-screen romance as a one-man factory keeps pumping out movies in which familiarity and quantity, not freshness and quality, have become what the audience is conditioned to reward.