Director: Michael Hoffman
Cast: James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberto, Gerald McRaney
Running time: 117 min
Nicholas Sparks film adaptations, of which The Best of Me is the tenth, include The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, and Dear John. They’re popular, and oh-so lucrative, because they’re as cynical as the books that inspire them. As a rule, they depict woman suffering horribly, make us weep, and offer mystical solace in terms so vague as to make Paulo Coelho look like Stephen Pinker. As one who fears and hates meaninglessness – the arbitrary contingency of love, the death of God, life’s cruel randomness – I find these otherwise near-meritless films compelling for weird unspeakable reasons. It’s a tradition that began with Stefan Zweig’s novelettes, and that received its cinematic inauguration with films like Max Ophüls’ 1948 adaptation of Zweig’s Letter From an Unknown Woman. The genre’s Ulysses, the work that reaches the golden mean of sappiness-to-cynicism, is Love Story – both Erich Segal’s novel and the reprehensible 1970 film treatment.
In The Best of Me, Dawson Cole (James Marsden) does vague manly work on an oil rig. He suffers a freak accident, but is saved by a vision of Amanda (Michelle Monaghan), a girl from his small-town past. Cut to this same small-town girl, grown up and in WASP heaven, answering a phone call that will cause her path to cross with this rugged man’s once more. The film then plays out between two eras – the present and the couple’s bizarre love-across-the-barricades courtship in the south twenty years previous. Young Dawson is played by Luke Bracey (Bracey and Marsden are the same person only if aging is the process whereby you look a little more like a member of Maroon 5 every day). He’s also the youngest in a family of criminals who smuggle some jambalaya of prostitutes, weapons and drugs across county lines. He wants to better himself, and young Amanda (played by Liana Liberto), the scion of an impossibly wealthy southern family, spots the nobility in him. Complications are inevitable. And what else is inevitable? A genially gruff veteran with a ticker of gold to act as a surrogate father, is what (Gerald McRaney).
As with all of Sparks’ plots, death and tragedy are the only possible punctuation for human relationships. As Sparks writes on his website, “love stories usually end tragically, or, at best, on a bittersweet note.” He’s been married for nearly two decades! My teeth, they grind. Because in practice, this amounts to women’s pain as a spectator sport. Dawson Cole is a typical Sparks male. He’s an almost pre-verbal hot mess of muscle tone and frowns. For him, love means never having to say anything at all. Meanwhile, Amanda suffers, the camera lingering on every teary grimace.
A small, good thing about The Best of Me is Liana Liberto, who astonished in David Schwimmer’s Trust in 2010. Since young Dawson’s vibe is something like Sexy Undead the only chemistry the couple share is formaldehyde, but her considerable charm is enough to make their scenes watchable. By the end, everyone was crying, be they freelance film critics or no. But you might want to run into a screening of Maps to the Stars as soon as the credits begin to roll as a corrective.