Mark Reviews Movies

The Best of Me


2  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Gerald McRaney, Caroline Goodall, Clarke Peters, Sebastian Arcelus, Jon Tenney, Sean Bridges, Rob Mello, Hunter Burke, Robby Rasmussen, Caroline Hebert, Ian Nelson

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 10/17/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 16, 2014

The setup is solid. The buildup is fine. The payoff is, well, the kind of maudlin, hokey stuff we've come to expect from adaptations of Nicholas Sparks' novels. That's to say The Best of Me isn't too bad for the majority of its time-crossing story, which means the movie is better than the majority of movies based upon Sparks' work.

What's slightly different is that director Michael Hoffman allows his actors to embrace the real heart of the story, which observes a pair of young lovers as they discover how crazy-in-love they are for each other. Then it lets us see how 20 years of absence has changed them as individuals but can't repress whatever drew them to each other in the first place.

The performances here aren't really performances in the way we traditionally think of the term. They do not create flesh-and-blood characters with established traits that develop into what the present-day ex-lovers would consider to be their histories. There's history between the older versions of the characters, but so much of it is hidden from us that we can only gauge them for what we know for certain they are: ex-lovers with unanswered questions and unfulfilled feelings.

Even so, there's a purity to these performances. Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, the younger actors, play new lovers as two people who don't approach each other to kiss but whose faces linger a little close to each other for comfort. While the faces are in close proximity, the actors bite on every pronouncement of affection and adoration. Hoffman's camera is in close-up during these moments, and the effect is that they look like they're about to gobble up each other. There's something partly laughable about the visual, but there's also another part to it that has us thinking of the extent of passion that would have two people look like they're going to nibble on each other's face in the heat of the moment.

The actors playing the couple two decades later have it a bit tougher. We don't know what caused Dawson (James Marsden) and Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) to go their separate ways 20 years prior, but we suspect it was pretty bad (in part because of the animosity on her side but mostly because it is a Sparks creation). After they've reunited to fulfill the wishes and take care of the estate of a mutual friend who has died, there's tension between them, of course, but it fades rather quickly as they get to talking about their current lives.

She's married to a comically inattentive husband (Sebastian Arcelus) and has a son (Ian Nelson) who's about to go to college. Dawson never married and, indeed, never found any real love other than that for Amanda. He's involved in an accident on an oil rig at the start of the movie, and when it happens, Amanda gives a look as if there has been a shudder from the depths of her soul. Yes, that apparent psychic link has something to do with what happens at the end of the movie, but it's much more mawkish than that.

The intriguing and genuinely sweet thing about the characters is in how Marsden and Monaghan play the bond between them (the romantic one, not the psychic hooey). It's as if there's some shared secret or joke between them to which we aren't privy. It's what people in the business call "chemistry," which basically can be summed up as our belief that the romantic leads are sincere when they smile at each other. That quality is here between these two, and it's palpable.

The bulk of the narrative focuses on the younger Dawson and Amanda, who go through the usual rewards and awkwardness of first loves. They "meet cute" over a couple of broken car engines. She asks him out on a date, and he stands her up after his father (Sean Bridges) hits him. Dawson moves into the garage of Tuck (Gerald McRaney), a complete stranger who says even less than Dawson, and in the movie's most affecting scenes, he gradually becomes a surrogate father to the young man. We know it's all going to go downhill very quickly at some point.

At least there's logic to it, and despite the external conflicts working in the background to pry the lovers apart, we have to admire J. Mills Goodloe and Will Fetters screenplay for keeping the separation as a conscious choice on the part of one of the characters. We like them enough in a general sort of way to understand and lament the decision, which is saying something.

The problems arise when the story of the past is complete, and the narrative shifts exclusively to the present. What was left unspoken must now be spoken in words that feel forced and sound far sappier than what has come before them. That other connection between the characters must be manifested in some cosmic explanation for the whole story. It's a bunch of nonsense, and even worse, the movie treats it as an inevitability before attempting to fake us out and then feeling the need to spell out what is already pretty explicit. We've come to expect better from The Best of Me, but it deflates those expectations with alarming zeal.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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