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"THE BEST OF ME"
(2014) (James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Former teenage sweethearts are reunited more than twenty years later by the death of their old friend, but most contend with unresolved issues from their past.
PLOT:
More than twenty years ago, Amanda Collier (MICHELLE MONAGHAN) and Dawson Cole (JAMES MARSDEN) were teenage sweethearts, but a tragic turn of events resulted in their split. She went on to become a wife and mother, although her marriage to alcoholic Frank (SEBASTIAN ARCELUS) is anything but ideal, while Dawson ended up working on an oil rig but never got married. They've now been reunited by the will of their former friend, Tuck (GERALD McRANEY), upon his death, and try to resolve issues from their past.

We then flashback to 1992 when Dawson (LUKE BRACEY) is a teenager trying to escape from the abusive hillbilly upbringing at the hands of his father, Tommy (SEAN BRIDGERS), while Amanda (LIANA LIBERATO) is a flirty girl from a rich family. One day, the two meet, and Dawson's cousin Bobby (ROBBY RASMUSSEN) -- who's recently got his girlfriend pregnant -- says he'd be crazy not to pursue her, but it's Amanda who sets her sights on Dawson and takes a proactive approach toward him.

After yet another bout of physical abuse from his father, Dawson runs away from home and happens upon a detached garage and stays there overnight to get out of the rain. The next morning, he's awakened at gunpoint by Tuck who quickly lowers his guard once he learns he's Tommy's boy and sees the swollen black eye on his face.

From that point on, he becomes Dawson's surrogate father and protector from his family, all while the romance between Dawson and Amanda quickly blossoms. But Dawson can't fully escape his past, a fact that shows up not only back in 1992, but also in the present day once he and Amanda start rekindling their romance.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I'm not sure which of the following is worse. To shoot yourself in the foot, run off the tracks and derail, or be given enough rope with which to hang yourself. Okay, the last one's definitely bad and the second is probably going to have some serious repercussions. One could likely survive the first, though, as long as the weapon of choice isn't a howitzer or something similarly big.

Of course, all of those sayings revolve around doing something well enough (and sometimes brilliantly) for a while, only to take some dumb, illogical or simply not thought all of the way through action that ends up sabotaging everything that preceded it. You know, like being on a winning streak while gambling, only to get cocky and go big with one wager that wipes out all of the earlier winnings. Or appearing about to win over someone, only to tell an off-color joke that ruins all of the effort leading up to that.

Personal lives and business trajectories are littered with such self-inflicted wounds, and movies are no stranger to having certain entries start off well, only to shoot themselves in the foot while derailing and ending up hanging themselves, so to speak. The latest such example is "The Best of Me," the most recent adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks' novel in what seems like it must be the gazillionth entry in the pantheon of filmed versions of his work.

In reality, it's the ninth adaptation, this time based on the 2011 novel of the same name. And it doesn't stray far from the exceedingly formulaic game plan that most, if not all (I've tried to forget a bunch of them) of those pics have used as a template for telling their tales of melodramatic, romantic woe. If I told you this one featured dual time lines featuring the same characters at different ages, along with young love, romantic reunions, strained family dynamics, kissing in the rain and, yes, the obligatory appearance of the Grim Reaper to add a little (or a lot) of tragedy into the mix, few people knowledgeable about Sparks-based movies would be surprised.

They might, however, be taken aback to hear that I actually sort of got into the film and its characters despite the trotting out of the clichés, conventions, stereotypes and sort of material that will get the waterworks flowing in the sort of viewers who are susceptible to the all-too obvious manipulation in play.

The tale centers on two adults (played by James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan) who are reunited by the figurative and literal will of an friend of theirs (Gerald McRaney) who recently died of old age. He's happy to see her, but she wants little do with him based on their past history. Not surprisingly, director Michael Hoffman -- who works from the screenplay adaptation by J. Mills Goodloe and Will Fetters -- then has us follow him back in time -- 21 years to be exact -- to when the two were young lovebirds (played by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, not exactly looking like younger versions of their older co-stars) and discover what went wrong.

Still following the usual formula, they're star-crossed kids -- she being from a rich family, he coming from the wrong side of the tracks where his physically and mentally abusive father (Sean Bridgers) is involved in some sort of drug or moonshine trade (the film doesn't make it clear, or I missed it if it did). Young Dawson ends up running away from home and living with McRaney's widower character, thus allowing the two young lovers time together, but there's little doubt bad old dad will arrive to screw things up for them.

Despite my better judgment and general distaste for movies of this ilk, I found the offering generally okay for the first two acts. But then the third one arrives and out comes the foot happy handgun, the noose of just the right length, and the derail-inducing bend in the tracks, all designed to thwart everything that preceded them. I won't go into particulars in order to avoid spoilers, but let's just say the melodrama, tragedies and far too convenient coincidences start piling up to the point that any goodwill the flick had built up to that point is jettisoned, while the non-desired laughs started erupting from those at our preview screening.

All involved try to keep a straight face, and the performances from the main characters are okay, if limited by the material and its eventual degradation. It's not rare to see a film derail, but it's sad to see one keep piling onto itself with all sorts of increasingly ponderous miscues, bad decisions and so on. Diehard romantics and Kleenex stockholders might not mind how things unfold and eventually wrap-up, but "The Best of Me" clearly showcases that the best of it does not occur in the third act. As a result, this offering musters nothing better than a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed October 15, 2014 / Posted October 17, 2014


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