Amanda: How can you expect me to start loving you again when I’ve never stopped?
Over the last 18 years, dramatic-romance novelist, Nicholas Sparks, has written eighteen novels, nine of which have been adapted for the big screen. If you’re at all familiar with his stories, then you will be far from shocked to learn that the latest film adapted from his oeuvre, THE BEST OF ME, is yet another one of his incredibly simplistic, yet deeply passionate tales of lovers fighting to be together, even though someone (or something) is forcing them apart. Director Michael Hoffman is no stranger to the romance genre, having made movies like ONE FINE DAY and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, and makes sure that every trope and formulaic element is in its place here. Those who have come to appreciate Spark’s storytelling and are fans of his usual boy-meets-girl scenarios can rest assured that yes, this is another one of his tried and true tales of the American romance, that audience goers will either absolutely hate or fall for completely.
Dawson Cole (a handsomely greying James Marsden) works on an oil rig, spending his evenings reading Stephen Hawking and gazing at the stars. One day, an explosion on the rig causes Dawson to be thrown into the water unconscious, only to be woken up in a hospital some time later, miraculously and completely unharmed. While at home, he learns that his good friend Tuck (Gerald McRaney) has passed away and is summoned to his hometown for the reading of the will. Upon his arrival, Dawson sees his high school sweetheart Amanda (Michelle Monaghan), now married to an alcoholic, wealthy business-type man with whom she shares a son. She too has also been called to the reading. Tuck has left all his belongings to the two ex-lovers, with personal notes written to each of them. Apparently it was this man’s dying wish to have these two lovers reunited and their love rekindled over the packing up of his belongings.
Cut to one of the many lengthy (but not bothersome) flashbacks that reveals how a young Dawson (Luke Bracey) and Amanda (Liana Liberato) met and fell in love. THE BEST OF ME continues to move between the two lovers relationship as teenagers in the 90’s, and the two in current time, catching up and dealing with all the external forces in their lives that have kept them apart all these years. Dawson is of course the blue-collar type from an abusive family, and Amanda grew up in a wealthy household where her family threw garden parties and attempted to pay off Dawson for leaving their daughter alone. Ah, the American bourgeoisie at its best.
Sure, what happens in THE BEST OF ME is quite possible, if you believe that an old man on his death bed wants to bring back two lovers despite the fact they haven’t seen each other in 21 years and have made their own separate lives in that time. Doesn’t anyone else find that creepy? The performances from Marsden and the two younger actors are incredibly believable, and even though Marsden is yet again the bridesmaid and never the bride, we root and cheer for him anyway, because the underdog always has the most redeeming qualities. Monaghan on the other hand couldn’t emote her way out of an already wet paper bag, which made the more intense scenes appear comical.
Sparks has long capitalized on a formula that works with his intended audience. Let us pretend for the sake of argument that this audience is made up of white, straight women, their reluctant boyfriends and/or husbands they’ve dragged to the theatre, and gay men drawn to the male lead. Both the heterosexual women and the gay men get to ogle an incredibly handsome man (Zac Efron, Channing Tatum and now Marsden) who will undoubtedly remove his shirt for physical labour or swimming at some point. They get to escape into a nostalgic love affair that will inevitably cause tears to flow, regardless of how narrow and limited the storytelling is. We enjoy this because we are all shown something we want to cheer for; we want the couple to end up together and that is exactly the way Sparks wants us to feel. Even despite its incredibly weak and almost laughable ending, THE BEST OF ME gets its overused story-hooks into us and doesn’t want to let us go. Why? Because deep down we long for the nostalgia of handwritten love letters and kissing in the rain. If Sparks’ notion of enduring love can happen to them, despite how unrealistic and absurd it seems on screen, then it can maybe one day happen to us too.