'The Best of Me'
Director: Michael Hoffman
Stars: Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden
2 (out of 5) Globes
“The Best of Me” starts with a Deepwater Horizon-esque oil rig disaster. This shouldn’t be completely surprising; this is, after all, a Nicholas Sparks movie, more than one of which have used the Iraq War as tasteless backdrop for his drippy, mega-sincere, Erich Segal ripoff melodramas. But using an actual, specific tragedy only to extract tears — after the opening, it’s never mentioned again — seems uncouth, even for him. Indeed, “The Best of Me” is and isn’t your usual Sparks film. It’s traditional Sparks in that it features a hesitant romance, pretty locations, an overqualified cast, and a crazy third act twist. It’s atypical Sparks in that it’s sometimes in its own category of crazy.
James Marsden plays Dawson Cole, which is a great name, even if it swipes its first from the hero of a long-running soapy young adult TV show. Dawson is a Stephen Hawking-reading loner working on the aforementioned rig when it explodes, blasting him into the ocean. He mysteriously survives, sending him into one of Sparks’ passive aggressively religious fits, in which he doesn’t necessarily embrace God but wonders if some force wasn’t looking out for him. (His many dead colleagues evidently were not so lucky.)
Sure enough, he’s summoned somewhere — to the Louisiana small town from which he came, to tend to the final wishes of the gruff man’s man (Gerald McRaney) who became his surrogate father. There he meets Amanda (Michelle Monaghan), an old flame who seems nonplussed to see him, even if it’s been 21 years. What happened? In giant flashbacks peppered throughout their reunion, we see them as a high school Romeo and Juliet, where she’s played by Liana Liberto, 19, and he’s played by Luke Bracey, who is 25 but looks at least 35.
And so begins one of those sad romances Sparks regularly pounds out, only a bit — and sometimes a lot — weirder this time. Indicative of the overachieving vibe, young Dawson isn’t just a monosyllabic rent-a-hunk from the wrong side of the tracks; he hails from a family of white trash drug dealers. His abusive, intimidating dad is even played by the enjoyably hammy Sean Bridgers, a real stand-out in Lucky McKee’s truly messed-up “The Woman” who genuinely freaks out the fragile Sparks universe. There’s more to break the spell: There’s gunplay, a scene where Bridgers shows his muscle by destroying someone’s garden and, because half of this is set in 1992, a steady flow of nostalgia radio hits, from The Lemonheads to Tag Team, who really make this one strange Nicholas Sparks entry.
As corn it doesn’t disappoint. (Two decades ago director-for-hire Michael Hoffman made fun of this kind of thing in “Soapdish.” Now he’s just following procedure.) It has a perverse integrity, playing every winsome stare and I’m-gonna-take-my-shirt-off moment with total sincerity. And if we’re talking technique, there’s some truly impressive contortions during the emo sex scenes, with the actors twisting themselves into gymnastic positions to hide their naughty bits. There’s not much more going on than hairpin turns, the final one so OTT that it’s hard not to giggle in satisfaction when it comes.
Still, it’s not fun seeing Monaghan — a total sparkplug in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” — stuck batting her eyes and trying not to stutter through lines like “You want me to fall back in love with you? How could I do that if I never really stopped?” Marsden — who subbed in, alas, for Paul Walker — mysteriously escaped unscathed. He’s enough of a pro to rise above the material while still doing the job required of him. But then Sparks’ men are rugged while his women are delicate flowers, waiting to be scooped up by the sensitive but macho.
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