There are many pop culture obsessions that are completely lost on me like Twilight, Transformers (yes, even the cartoon. I said it), 50 Shades of Grey or even Call of Duty (yes, I said it again). However, the one massively successful author who will always be a frustrating, infuriating, point of confusion for me is Nicholas Sparks. Admittedly, I only know his work through film adaptations that he’s barely involved with, so perhaps on the page his remarkably chaste love stories revolving around rain drenched make out sessions have an indescribably poetic quality.
However, since Sparks’ distinct brand of blandness seems to extend across his various cinematic endeavors with a remarkable consistency, I’ve got a feeling that’s not the case. Based on movie star chemistry alone, I understand the appeal of The Notebook. But every endless Sparks adaptation spat onto screens since then (and before then) has been so punishingly boring and nauseatingly cheesy that I frequently have to contain myself from screaming at the screen in frustration. The Best of Me is the latest of these pathetic piles of romantic swill, and while it’s one of the worst thus far, picking a low point amongst Sparks adaptations is almost impossible. They’re all so horrendous in their own that they all deserve a special dismissal. This crap heap is no exception.
Taking a page from The Notebook (see what I did there? Sparks would be proud), the film follows a pair of lovers across two timelines. In the contemporary setting, Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden play a pair of former lovers who haven’t seen each other in years, but are brought back together into a storm of emotions when an old man they knew in childhood passes away and leaves them an inheritance. In the past, we meet Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey as younger and more nubile editions of the same boring couple. As it turns out they were star-crossed lovers (shocker!). She was a goodie-two-shoes from a rich family. He was from the wrong side of the tracks (as suggested in the future by Marsden’s brazen, untamed stubble), but was secretly as good as one could possibly be. He just had a jerk of a criminal father. Thankfully, he escaped at was able to shack up with an old Christian curmudgeon. Unfortunately, the nice boy just couldn’t escape his past and eventually ended up in prison cutting their perfect relationship off short. Fortunately, they had plenty of rainy make out sessions before then that suggest the truest of true love and now they’re thrust back together in the present day with only a stuck up jerk of a husband between them. Cue swooning in past and present as well as a third act twit so idiotic that laughter is the only rational response.
All Nicolas Sparks movies come with a certain amount of Christian dogma, but The Best of Me lays it on thicker than usual. Shortly after the story kicks off, two side characters chat about how their teenage pregnancy is worth following through to the end since they have love and Jesus on their side. Later the values are imparted in slightly more coded ways. As usual, the love story itself is remarkably and old-fashionedly chaste. The boy goes shirtless with reckless abandoned, but the girl always dresses conservatively. Shockingly, there are two on-screen sex scenes, yet both are followed swiftly by death with the moral righteousness of a 80s slasher movie. There’s also the suggestion of crime in the movie, but it’s never shown or explained. The characters that live on the wrong side of the law simply have greasy hair, live in dirty houses, and seem gross compared to the clean lovers. That’s what evil is in this wacky upside down reality, I suppose. Even though the movie flaunts romance and sexuality to titillate the target audience, the hard Christian morality never allows things to get too sensual or erotic. Sparks sells love as an impossible ideal and there’s no change to that approach here. Every character is either pining for impossible love, experiencing it in a daze, or remembering it solemnly. There’s nothing close to the complex emotions of reality here, just Hallmark fantasy. It’s all loathsome shorthand that suggests people would be too stupid to figure out anything with even an ounce of complexity or originality.
As usual, a different director signed up for this Sparks adaptation in Michael Hoffman, yet the author’s voice is so strong that it dictates the cinematic style. Nothing can be imposed on Sparks. These movies are all shot in soft focus with pastoral country settings and slow, dreamy pacing. They feel like detergent commercials, and that’s the only style possible. The actors can’t rock the boat. As usual they behave as if they’re sedated, unless they are crying or swooning. That’s the emotional range that Sparks allows and there’s no room for anything in between or ambiguity. It’s a dull, tedious, and impossibly cheesy slog to watch.
However, all the Sparks flicks have felt that way to me and they’ve all been hits. Clearly there’s an audience for these movies and it’s entirely likely that audience will eat this swill up with the same ferocious hunger as the last movies. For the foreseeable future, Hollywood romantic dramas will be defined by Sparks’ special brand of melodramatic blandness. There’s just no accounting for taste. We live in a world where Tyler Perry is one of the most successful storytellers alive. By that standard Nicolas Sparks makes sense. That’s not an excuse, but at least it is somewhat of an explanation.
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