Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Best of Me

THE BEST OF ME (Michael Hoffman, 2014)

Former high school sweethearts Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) and Dawson (James Marsden) did not end on good terms when they last saw each other 21 years ago in THE BEST OF ME. (Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey play their younger selves.) A reunion occurs when their old friend Tuck (Gerald McRaney) dies, thus beckoning them back to their Louisiana hometown to spread his ashes and take care of his estate.

Their relationship always seemed like an unlikely coupling. The gregarious Amanda comes from a wealthy family. The socially awkward Dawson was raised among a band of lowlifes who look like they might be at home in Jim Rose’s Circus. Amanda is not much interested in renewing ties with Dawson but respects Tuck’s wishes even if being around her onetime boyfriend reopens old emotional wounds. She’s the mother of two children and has been married for eighteen years while Dawson is on his own working on an oil rig. Amanda and Dawson get on friendlier terms as they remember the good times but are cautious about becoming too comfortable together again.

THE BEST OF ME is shot like a prescription drug television advertisement, so ask your doctor if this Nicholas Sparks adaptation is right for you. Side effects include overdosing on the novelist’s brand of cynical sentimentality that posits the best way to love someone is for the other party to be dead, which is not limited to romantic love. For all of their earnestness, films based on Sparks’ books are often brazen in how they provide characters with satisfaction of the heart through punishment.

Monaghan and Marsden play their roles with admirable restraint. When director Michael Hoffman keeps things loose and lets Amanda and Dawson hang out as their younger and older selves, he works toward building a seriously minded, albeit tepid, romance about reacquainting with a long-lost love. Still, THE BEST OF ME lacks a spark because it hides the major event in Amanda and Dawson’s past that explains what went wrong between them. Obviously the characters are privy to this information, but other than surprising the audience, there’s nothing to be gained in the narrative by withholding it until a third act revelation. Burying the key obstacle between Amanda and Dawson renders their situation less poignant for most of the film for the sake of dropping an emotional bombshell.

In the final act the gears of Sparks’ plotting also undo THE BEST OF ME. After leisurely shifting between their new love affair in 1992 and meeting again in the present day, the story piles up complications at a breakneck pace. The soapier developments are, the more laughable it all becomes.

Grade: C-

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