'The Best of Me': Film Review

A heavily engineered romance that announces every fateful twist

Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden play star-crossed lovers in a Louisiana-set adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel

When bad things happen to good people in The Best of Me, they’re not tests of character but proof of it. Purposeful patterns drive every aspect of the feature, the latest screen adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. They’re spelled out in conversation and voiceover narration, and readily decodable in the golden-hued visuals that proclaim the purity of true love.

The Louisiana-set romance stars Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden as a couple who are reunited unexpectedly — but not accidentally — 20 years after their high-school love story’s abrupt end. Though their characters may overcome diversity with grace, the likable actors face a monumental challenge in the form of often risible dialogue and desperately melodramatic situations. Their unforced performances notwithstanding, the story is too heavily engineered to be believable or involving. Word of mouth could dent the wide release’s built-in date-movie appeal.

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Marsden plays low-key lone wolf Dawson Cole, an oil rig worker whose brush with mortality leads him to reassess his life. His heroics after an explosion rocks an offshore rig are topped only by the miracle (doctor’s assessment) of his own survival. Thrown into the water, he floats in a Christ-like pose and has a vision of Amanda Collier, the only girl he’s ever loved. In short measure, they’re back in their hometown, reunited by the destiny that guides them, and by an estate lawyer who summons them to the reading of a friend’s will.

But first they gaze, separately, at the same stars, Amanda (Monaghan) in her suburban Baton Rouge backyard, where she coexists with one of those clearly wrong, conveniently dismissible movie mates (Sebastian Arcelus).

An extended flashback traces the trajectory from meet-cute to undying love between the teenage Dawson and Amanda, kids from opposite sides of the tracks played by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato. The inevitable running-and-laughing montage will be matched later by the older couple’s eating-and-laughing montage.

The young actors have definite chemistry, but the lack of physical resemblance between the characters’ younger and older selves proves distracting. Paul Walker, who was slated to play Dawson at the time of his death, would have been no closer a physical fit for Bracey, who’s charismatic and gets more than a few beefcake moments, and who comes off as one of the world’s oldest teenagers.

It could be argued that living with his monstrous redneck father (Sean Bridgers) and henchman brothers (Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters, with mullets) has made Dawson appear older than his years. Smart and earnest, he’s such a good guy that he doesn’t know how to flirt, as the dialogue both demonstrates and informs us. Liberato’s Amanda is the (gentle, tasteful) aggressor, right up to their beautiful First Time Together and even after the self-sacrificing Dawson tries to distance her from the web of violence that is his inheritance.

Amanda wears circa-2012 fashions in the 1992 scenes, which, with their art-directed division between what’s wholesome and what’s not, feel like they could be unfolding in 1952. As the man who becomes Dawson’s surrogate father and the story’s ultimate string-puller, Gerald McRaney is warm and gruff, lending a bit of much-needed emotional ballast to the hand-of-fate manipulations.

With their characters set in narrative stone in those earlier sequences, Marsden and Monaghan are left to play out the story’s increasingly far-fetched plot turns. Every dramatic twist is telegraphed so clearly that only onscreen titles announcing them would be more obvious. As scripted by J. Mills Goodloe and Will Fetters, moments that are meant to be big announce themselves and fizzle, as in the utterly unconvincing scene where Amanda’s father (Jon Tenney) attempts to buy off Dawson.

Director Michael Hoffman (The Last Station) doesn’t push his actors or the pace, opting for a sense of structure that suits the material. So too does the honeyed light of cinematographer Oliver Stapleton’s widescreen lensing, which emphasizes the lead actors’ beauty and captures something slightly wild and almost dreamy in the Louisiana locations, with their lush green backwoods and moss-hung oaks. Aaron Zigman’s score provides reassuring downhome uplift — perhaps a necessary element in a tale of impossible, perfect love, where everything happens for a reason and is as it should be, even when it’s terrible.

Production companies: Relativity Media, Di Novi Pictures, Nicholas Sparks Prods.
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Gerald McRaney, Caroline Goodall, Sebastian Arcelus, Jon Tenney, Sean Bridgers
Director: Michael Hoffman
Screenwriters: J. Mills Goodloe, Will Fetters

Based on the book by Nicholas Sparks
Producers: Denise Di Novi, Alison Greenspan, Nicholas Sparks, Ryan Kavanaugh, Russ Kavanaugh, Theresa Park
Executive producers: Tucker Tooley, Robbie Brenner, Ron Burkle, Jason Colbeck
Director of photography: Oliver Stapleton
Production designer: Patrizia von Brandenstein
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Matt Chesse  
Music: Aaron Zigman
Casting director: Ronna Kress

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes