THE BEST OF ME. James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Liana Liberato, Luke Bracey. Directed by Michael Hoffman. 118 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, violence, sex scenes and coarse language).
Though this adaption of a reportedly popular Nicholas Sparks novel can boast an inoffensive but bland central romance, its requisite melodramatic twists and turns don't do its reasonable cast justice.
Present day Dawson Cole (James Marsden) works an unremarkable job on an offshore oil rig. When an admittedly well mounted and shot accident throws him 100 feet out into the ocean and he miraculously survives unharmed, he thinks that there may be some purpose behind his impossible survival. When called by a lawyer to attend to the estate of his old friend and surrogate father Tuck (Gerald McRaney), he believes this may be the sign he was looking for.
Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) is unhappily married to a finance type, celebrating the high school graduation of her son. She too is looking for something more from life, so when she receives the same call from Tuck's lawyer, she takes it as a chance to leave her family behind to reflect on her choices. So the wheels are in motion, drawing the former lovers together back to their hometown in New Orleans.
We are treated to a narrative divided between the present and the pair's romance set in 1992 (which somehow looks like a mishmash of the 1960s and 1980s). Their younger selves (played by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato) enjoy a meet-cute involving a couple of broken down cars, which the young Dawson is a dab hand at mending. Dawson's backstory involves trying to escape from his villainous, drug-dealing family, while Amanda's is marked by her upper-class parents, who deem her far too good for the working class Dawson, and set about breaking them apart. Star-crossed lovers whose evil fathers are trying to break them apart? So far, so familiar.
The driving question behind the two plots are: firstly, what made these two dedicated youngsters break up with each other in 1992, and secondly, will they get back together in the present day? The answer to the first question is certainly the better, more believable one, while the second question's answer manages to be contrived and downright silly at the same time. As a sidenote, the audience is positioned to hope that the pair do romantically reunite in the present day story, which from my point of view was extremely problematic. It begs the question: are 'destiny' and an unhappy marriage good enough reasons to expect an audience to cheer the married female protagonist towards committing adultery? It certainly shouldn't be, and the result of their reunion 20-odd years down the track is worrying from this perspective. The final 'twist' is also plainly obnoxious, and less than half as romantic as the film thinks it is.
As with most Nicholas Sparks adaptations, the melodrama is ladled on. This film includes the scattering of topless male actor scenes, the tentative love making, terrible accidents, slow dancing, and bursts of jarring but bloodless violence which audiences will likely expect when going in. Fans of his previous films will thus not be disappointed. The standard, decent cast which his films attract are here too, all of them passable but historically capable of far better work (with Bracey in particular looking distractingly too old for his role). Director Michael Hoffman is also not at his best (he directed the very good Tolstoy biopic 'The Last Station'), unsure of whether to pursue a sweet romance or a melodrama and simply settling in the middle.
'The Best of Me' is a film which never reaches the potential its cast and crew would suggest. This will no doubt be seen by fans of Sparks' novels and as a default choice for movie dates, but I suggest doing a bit more looking around for alternatives, as this adaption gets the best out of no one.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 30.