Imagine that someone pulled a drain plug on a majestic mountain lake. At first, you wouldn’t notice anything amiss, save for a low gurgle echoing from deep under the water. But as the water line dropped, exposing the soggy shore, your heart would drop, and by the time the lake vanished away, leaving sludge and long-forgotten trash and desperate fish flopping around gasping for life, you’d realize the tragedy before you.
That’s pretty much how it felt to watch “The Best of Me.”
“The Best of Me” is the latest adaptation of a novel by Nicholas Sparks, a man who seems determined to become the Michael Bay of romance.
The film, produced by the author and directed by Michael Hoffman, is constructed around a guy and a girl. The guy is Dawson (James Marsden), a manly man who does manly things. When he isn’t saving lives working on an oil rig, he’s working on cars in the hot sun. And he’s always wearing a tank top.
The girl is Amanda (Michelle Monaghan), a married mother of two with unrealized dreams of philanthropy and law school. Her oldest has just graduated high school and her husband doesn’t appreciate her, which is meant to justify her behavior later in the film.
Dawson and Amanda have a past, but they haven’t seen each other in 20 years. Then a mutual friend dies and summons them back to their Bayou country hometown via his last will and testament. Tuck (Gerald McRaney) was a father figure of sorts to them back in the day and just knows that they are meant to be.
The reunion scene is classic. Dawson arrives at Tuck’s place first and decides to kill some time by stripping down to his tank top and working on one of the innumerable classic cars that linger in the background of the film (perhaps to hold the attention of the unwitting husbands and boyfriends dragged to this movie?). Amanda arrives, discovers sweaty Dawson, and awkward sexual tension ensues.
“I’m sorry I’m so messed up,” Marsden drawls.
Sure. Whatever, dude.
To be fair, so far we’re only in eye-roll territory. From here, we get clued in to a shared past through a series of flashbacks to 1992, where we meet the teenage equivalents of our heroes, played by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato. Liberato is passable as a young Monaghan, but Bracey is comically miscast as Dawson, looks closer to 30 than 18, and is only identifiable because he and Marsden appear to be sharing the same ratty tank top.
For Amanda, it’s love at first sight once she sees Dawson help someone with car trouble, and she pretty much wills him into a serious relationship. It doesn’t matter that Dawson comes from the wrong side of town because he so clearly doesn’t want to be a part of his abusive, over-the-top evil family or their “Lost Boys”-inspired wardrobe.
It may be silly and transparent — Dawson really hates wearing shirts! — but this is all just the first stage of the tragedy. As the narrative jockeys back and forth between past and present, we slowly piece together the reasons Dawson and Amanda didn’t stay together and why they are still so in love today.
Once they realize this, Dawson and Amanda get a visit from the adultery fairy and things pass the point of no return. This just-barely-PG-13 encounter mirrors an earlier scene that marked the consummation of their teenage love, and while neither scene officially crosses into R-rated territory, their combined strength was more than enough to send massive waves of awkwardness coursing through a screening packed with mommies and unsuspecting daughters.
It’s around this point that an ethically questionable plot completely goes off the rails into a preposterous abomination of a third act, culminating in a late plot twist so obvious that the audible gasp of surprise it inspired was met with open laughter from everyone who saw it coming 15 minutes earlier.
Anyone who hides behind the “chick flick” defense on this one is kidding themselves. “The Best of Me” is a contrived manipulation and an insult to female sensibilities.
“The Best of Me” is rated PG-13 for its aforementioned sexual content, as well as some pretty graphic violence and profanity (including a single use of the F-word).
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.