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Non-Review Review: The Best of Me

As with a lot of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, there’s something inherently reductive about The Best of Me. The film would suggest that characters are either inherently good or inherently bad, with several members of the cast existing as nothing more than roadblocks serving to keep the film’s central couple apart. The Best of Me is not set in the real world; it makes no allowance for the nuanced complexities of human emotions and relationships.

Instead, The Best of Me unfolds in a weird parallel world, a world where all human interactions and feelings are clear-cut and simple. It is easy to see the appeal of this world. It is a realm of romantic fantasy, where probability and chance are simply the tools of dramatic irony; where obvious twists are not only expected, they are obligatory. The Best of Me introduces its male lead, Dawson, reading Stephen Hawking as lazy shorthand for how smart he is. He can’t be that smart, or he’d understand this world doesn’t follow anything as bland as physics.

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Throughout The Best of Me, characters ruminate on the machinations of fate and destiny. We are told that mankind has always looked to the stars to guide them. However, this metaphysical musing is not so much a thematic statement as preemptive justification for a contrived (and entirely predictable) final act. The Best of Me is very much a twist in search of a movie. It is a tire-and-tested twist, at that.

However, the characters in The Best of Me don’t seem to realise that there is a difference between fate and hackneyed writing.

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Nicholas Sparks adaptations have a formula. That’s not a revelation, of course. Lots of different types of movies have formulas – a way of letting the audience know what they can expect and roughly when they can expect it. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just means that a Nicholas Sparks adaptation lives or dies based on how well it executes that formula. The Best of Me isn’t quite as effective as The Notebook, but it’s much stronger (and significantly less creepy) than The Lucky One.

It is easy enough to predict the ebb and flow of The Best of Me. Two high-school sweethearts reunite to take care of the last will and testament of a mutual friend. Dawson works on an oil rig, where he is introduced saving two fellow crew members during a fire. Amanda is married and getting ready to see her son go off to college and enter the real world. They have not seen each other for years by the time they are drawn back together, and the film immediately sets about exploring their young doomed love.

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All the stock elements are there. Dawson carries a huge burden of guilt, handily signified by the wads of cash that he sends somewhere in an envelop at the start of the film. Of course, Dawson is the only person who hasn’t forgiven himself for what happened. Though Amanda is married, she is not happily married. Her husband is alcoholic and inattentive, with the film ambiguous as to which is the greater problem. He is a character who does no exist, except as a potential hurdle for Dawson and Amanda.

Dawson comes from a family with its own issues – meth cookers and drug dealers. Again, the film doesn’t bother to sketch out Dawson’s family circumstances in anything but broad strokes. His father is unequivocally an evil man, and his brothers are a potent combination of stupid and evil. None of these characters feel like anything more than two-dimensional obstacles for Dawson – very broadly-drawn archetypes that serve to extend the film’s runtime unnecessarily.

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Not that the lead characters are any more developed. Dawson reads physic books atop one of the town’s two water towers. Amanda comes from a world of privilege where the expectation is that everybody will go to college. As a young man, Dawson is the picture of stoic righteousness. As an adult, he is a paragon of attempted atonement. Amanda is a more interesting character, even if the movie isn’t exactly subtle in its portrayal of her arc.

To be fair, director Michael Hoffman does a decent job capturing the beauty of New Orleans. The Bayou looks absolutely wonderful, portrayed as some sort of ethereal romantic wonderland. This fits quite comfortably with the general mood of The Best of Me, which is drawn as something of a generic romantic fable populated with archetypes rather than characters. Hoffman is fond of nice wide exterior shots and slow-moving camera sequences, lending The Best of Me an almost stately grace.

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The cast do the best they can with the material. James Marsden works well enough as a broadly-drawn romantic archetype – chiselled features and a perpetual sense of self-flagellating angst. Michelle Monaghan and Liana Liberato do the best that they can with the character of Amanda, with Liberato infusing the younger iteration of the character with an endearing sense of energy, while Monaghan tries to make the older version feel like more than simply a tool of the plot.

And then there are the twists. There is an obvious attempt to mimic The Notebook here, treating inevitable results of the story’s construction as brutal twists. There has to be a reason that Amanda and Dawson are not together, so we get that reason in flashback. While the film glosses over the consequences of that incident, it works well enough in context. However, the bigger twist in the present-day reunion storyline is easy to see coming. In a rather serious miscalculation, the film’s editing tries to preserve suspense when it would be better to play it as inevitable.

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The Best of Me is a little too broad, a little too generic, a little too contrived in its execution of a tried-and-tested romantic formula. It tries to write off plot contrivance as fate, but is never convincing in that assertion. The result is a movie that is functional, but little more.

2 Responses

  1. Your review leaves me speechless! Why can’t you just enjoy the movie instead of trying to show us how brilliant you are? Are you kidding me? Good Lord!

    • Hi Tom!

      I tried to enjoy the movie, believe me. Contrary to what popular culture would have you believe, critics would much rather enjoy two hours than watch them drag by! But, hey, tastes differ.

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