[Screen It]

"THE LAST SONG"
(2010) (Miley Cyrus, Greg Kinnear) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Upset over being forced to spend the summer with her estranged dad at his beach home, a surly teen gets a new outlook on life when she meets and eventually falls for a local boy and must then contend with an unexpected crisis.
PLOT:
Ronnie Miller (MILEY CYRUS) is a surly teenage girl from New York who isn't happy that her mom, Kim (KELLY PRESTON), has arranged for her and her younger brother, Jonah (BOBBY COLEMAN), to spend the summer with their father, Steve (GREG KINNEAR), at his Georgia beachfront home where he's crafting a new stained glass window for the local church that recently burned down. Ronnie's attitude stems from blaming her parents' past divorce on him, and thus hasn't touched a piano since then, despite and because of being a gifted pianist just like her dad.

In fact, despite being accepted to attend Julliard, she'd rather live an aimless life and sulk, exacerbated by the fact that she'll likely be friendless for the entire summer. A local teen, Blaze (CARLY CHAIKIN), does partially befriend Ronnie, but her boyfriend Marcus (NICK LASHAWAY) is a jerk. Then there's Will Blakelee (LIAM HEMSWORTH), another local teen who's something of a jack of all trades. When not working in an auto shop with his friend Scott (HALLOCK BEALS), he's playing volleyball or serving as a volunteer at the nearby aquarium.

Ronnie initially wants nothing to do with him, but the fact that he's taken an interest in protecting a nest of sea turtle eggs -- just like her -- eventually wears down her defenses. The two quickly become friends and then more. Yet, Ronnie must then contend not only with facts and rumors about him, but also an unexpected family crisis that forces her to grow up.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Unlike average moviegoers who usually only see releases that are of interest to them and are watched just for the entertainment value, movie reviewers pretty much see everything, good and bad, and go through such offerings with a fine-tooth comb looking for both positive things to note and problems that need to be pointed out. In fact, we've seen so many and subconsciously averaged such results that it's fairly easy to guesstimate what's going to be put up on the screen.

For instance, we automatically know that sports dramas, romantic comedies and romantic weepers will have any number of montages contained between the opening and closing credit sequences. While many people don't mind the training session, the trying on of dresses and the longing for one's significant other sequences of those respective genres, they're so commonplace that they'd be funny to critics if they weren't so irritating. After all, they're just an easy, cop-out way of imparting storytelling elements to the viewer without putting any effort into writing dialogue, plot and more. In other words, they're filler.

It's gotten so bad in the past decade or so that a colleague and I try to guess how many will be in any given such film. With "The Last Song" lying in wait for us, we predicted our numbers, going somewhat high considering this is the latest cinematic adaptation of a novel written by author Nicholas Sparks. Little did we know that the combination of both guess totals wouldn't match the number this sappy, predictable and carefully calculated romantic tearjerker pumped out. In short, we gave up counting long before the final one graced us with its presence.

If you're a fan of any previous versions of Sparks' work -- including "Message In A Bottle," "A Walk To Remember," "The Notebook," "Nights in Rodanthe" and the recently released "Dear John" -- you'll probably like some or all of what's offered. And that's troubled people dealing with promising but troubled relationships while past, current and pending traumas impact them. Such films are all played earnestly -- and play to the sort of viewers who like afternoon and nighttime TV soap operas and "disease of the week" movies -- but they pile up arch emotions, melodrama and the kicking of the characters while they're down to the point that they end up overbearing when not being boring, predictable and unintentionally funny.

Here, we have Miley Cyrus finally trying to move on -- and out from under the cash cow known as Hannah Montana -- in a new feature film persona (sorry, voicing an animated character in "Bolt" doesn't really count in such regards). All of which means she personifies the bad stereotypes of female teenage-dom -- surly, anti-parent demeanor and pouting when not quickly falling into immediate and giddy-inducing puppy love (which, of course, is confused by said teen as the real thing).

The fact that it apparently turned into the latter -- Cyrus and hunky co-star Liam Hemsworth are now an item off the screen -- is somewhat surprising (when not raising the suspicions of the skeptical that it's nothing more than a publicity stunt or one of those short-lived, "we worked together" flings) considering how artificial and structured their romance and chemistry together is orchestrated in the film.

Normally, I would attest that not just to the involved performers, but also the filmmaker -- this time, Julie Anne Robinson making her big screen debut after working on the small screen) -- and screenwriter. To be fair, I have no idea if Sparks' novels are as sappy, melodramatic and manipulative as the movie versions (methinks they probably are), but if they aren't, he can't completely lay the blame on others with this one. And that's because he not only co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Van Wie, but also reportedly wrote the original novel specifically for the movie adaptation.

Whoever's to blame, the film is nothing more than a series of montages that hold together the plot about a teen (Cyrus, of course) who's taken with her brother (a decent Bobby Coleman, even if he precariously borders on cinematic precociousness far too often) by their mother (Kelly Preston, smart enough not to hang around -- Oh, that's right, that's what the script dictates) to spend the summer with their estranged dad (Greg Kinnear doing the humble and earnest thing yet one more time) at his beach place (the usually setting for Sparks' tales).

Ronnie isn't happy with her dad, based on blaming him for the past divorce, but we know that can't last forever (thank goodness as Cyrus, despite doing the pouty lip thing isn't terribly convincing in surly/unhappy mode). She then literally runs into her future beau (that being Hemsworth in shirtless volleyball mode -- he also appears as aquarium volunteer in a subplot about sea turtle eggs, grease monkey in an auto shop where he's helping hold a pivotal secret held by a coworker, and silver spoon son in a wealthy family that, natch, has experienced a somewhat recent tragedy.

She wants nothing to do with him, he playfully nudges her on and wears down her defenses, the two become an item and then she repeatedly gets mad at him for any number of real or perceived slights. Little if any of it's believable and none of it feels natural (even some female teens seated behind me -- presumably the film's target audience -- were mocking the romance and all aspects of its artificiality).

Sparks and company then invite the Grim Reaper to the proceedings, as always occurs in most if not all of his films, with yet another tragedy. While I admittedly heard bits of sniffling from those at our preview screening, the sarcastic muttering and related sounds equaled and sometimes exceeded the sounds of those lured in by the lurid story elements. My greatest disappointment, however, was that the aforementioned sea turtle babies' gigantic mom didn't arrive and take out everyone one by one, followed by a hurricane and then a tidal wave just to make sure everyone was taken care of full-on tragedy style.

Now that would have been a montage I might have enjoyed in this flick that, even with such a calamitous conclusion, still probably would have ended with Cyrus singing the closing tune because, well, that's what's expected of her. Perhaps she should stick to singing until some acting lessons come along to help her graduate from Hannah Montana and avoid over-acting and landing in maudlin, montage-heavy films like this. "The Last Song" rates as a 3 out of 10.




Reviewed March 25, 2010 / Posted March 31, 2010


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