When I was a kid, they were called Harlequin Romances. The famous imprint, which used jacked-up male models in suggestively sexy painted cover shots with their target demo: women who read. The covers provided a kind of softcore titillation, allowing the lonely and/or literate a chance to fantasize their otherwise ordinary and uneventful life away. There, within the pages of its latest period piece pillow fight, a female could find her Prince Charming, her Royal Soldier, her ephemeral soulmate, earning a love that would sacrifice itself for her far more important wants and needs.
While names like Barbara Carlton and Barbara Taylor Bradford guaranteed sales, most of these novels where scrivener pulp, formulaic and flawed as both works of art and examples of the long form narrative craft. Still, they brought in the bucks, and with them, a fanbase always eager for more. Then, cable TV took over, introducing a little something called Lifetime to the lonely hearted. Within its gender-specific programming was a place for such specious escapes. Decades later, the network’s name has replaced the jester-based original for boo-hoo, bodice heaving bragging rights.
Cinematically speaking, we can blame Robert James Waller for turning romantic dramas into drippy inner flings. His awful Bridges of Madison County sold an unconscionable 50 million copies worldwide (by comparison, Stephen King and his 50 plus titles have sold only 350 million). While Clint Eastwood’s take on the book (with Meryl Streep in the lead) did decent business ($182 million worldwide), it created an even more concerning offshoot: Nicolas Sparks. While there’s no real fact-based connection between the two entities, the studios sudden desire to adapt The Notebook author’s back catalog for the big screen is a direct result of the bank that can be bet on by putting doomed romance on the screen.
So far, we’ve seen eight of Sparks’ 18 books turned into films. The Best of Me is number nine (and there are already two more planned) and, by all accounts, it’s the same old spit recycled through a familiar, forced empathy. Like the rest of his work, it features unrequited lovers, contrived means of keeping them together/apart, and a last act denouement that twists everything into a frantic fever dream of loss, love, and tear-streaked lamentations. There may even be a hurricane or other natural disaster involved.
If you love Sparks, you’ll love this movie update. If you like him, you’ll probably feel indifferent. But if you recognize Sparks as the literary antichrist that he is, the near two hours of mush you have to endure will never be worth your date’s “later in the evening” desires.
Our hokey tale begins with hunky hero Dawson Cole (James Marsden) surviving an oil rig explosion. Within moments, he learns that his old friend Tuck Hostetler (Gerald McRaney) has just died. Returning to his small town bayou burg for the first time in nearly 21 years, he confronts a problematic past including his own family’s local notoriety and his old high school flame, Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan). Of course, she’s married, with an angry alcoholic A-type jerk husband and a sainted son in tow. As luck would have it, Tuck leaves them both his cozy cabin, with hopes that they can rekindle their previous romance.
Why has Dawson be away so long? Cue mandatory flashback to a time when both he (Luke Bracey) and she (Liana Liberato) were in high school. Amanda’s family are well off. Dawson’s, on the other hand, is a bunch of backwater redneck outlaws. His dad (Sean Bridgers) is particularly abusive, beating his introverted son on a regular basis. As Amanda pulls him out of his shell, Tuck provides the oasis for their across the tracks trysts. Just when it looks like things will be going their way, Dawson is involved in an “incident” which forces him to go away for a while.
And things just get more contrived and preposterous from there. Without delving into spoilers (not that anyone going to see a Sparks film doesn’t already know the intimate details of this man’s manipulative gotchas), let’s just say that old vendettas return, guns are fired, people are killed, and hearts demand transplanting. Cue weepy musical score.
Like a hack tunesmith that keeps rewriting the same melodies over and over again, hoping his legion of fans don’t notice the ruse, we’ve heard this Sparks song before. If this films’ soundtrack were playing on a portable radio, you’d heave it at the nearest cinderblock wall. While it’s not all bad, it’s balderdash. Marsden and Monaghan are indeed fantastic together, with a chemistry that questions the original casting of Paul Walker (whose untimely death required his replacement). Equally impressive is the work from Bracey and Liberato. All four of these fine actors elevate this slop as best they can.
In fact, if the film were less of a tearjerking joke, just a movie about two old puppy lovers rekindling their romance decades later, it would (or could) totally work. But Sparks is a brand, and a bad one at that. He’s redundant and deliberate, unaccustomed to subtlety or sharply written dialogue. He regurgitates ideas, surrounds them with fluff, and hopes all the hearts and flowers will keep the reader (or viewer) away from the pit-sized plot holes. Name an unnecessary forced emotion or cloying human coincidence and Sparks jumps on it like a feral animal.
As modern moviemaking would have it, even crappy saccharine stupidity can find its demo and deliver the box office goods. Even with his movie ratings in decline, Sparks can still demand at least minor audience attention. Besides, what else are young couples supposed to spoon over once the final credits have rolled? Fury? Guardians of the Galaxy? Whiplash?
By filling a gap, by programming material for Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for cheap-to-produce genre filler, a movie like The Best of Me becomes an agreeable gamble. If it loses money, so what? There’s plenty more exploitable Sparks in the inventory. If it doesn’t then, well, we’re all doomed. Doomed! Not even a Harlequin romance could result in something so aesthetically apocalyptic.