Based on the bestselling novel by acclaimed author Nicholas Sparks, The Best of Me tells the story of Dawson and Amanda, two former high school sweethearts who find themselves reunited after 20 years apart, when they return to their small town for the funeral of a beloved friend. Their bittersweet reunion reignites the love they’ve never forgotten, but soon they discover the forces that drove them apart twenty years ago live on, posing even more serious threats today. Spanning decades, this epic love story captures the enduring power of our first true love, and the wrenching choices we face when confronted with elusive second chances.
After nine films, it’s safe to say there’s a formula for Nicholas Sparks’ works. Two (pretty, safe, white, straight) individuals come together in spite of obstacles from one or both of their lives, and they have a pure romance that will somehow have a tragic ending. Also, at least one wise old man will likely die at some point. The pinnacle of the Sparks adaptations on film remains The Notebook, which had the fortune of a knockout cast (Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, plus James Garner and Gena Rowlands as their older counterparts) and good timing, since Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember weren’t exactly home runs at the box office.
The Best of Me is not, in spite of its title, even close to among the best of the Sparks adaptations. The biggest issue not related to the story (which I’ll tackle momentarily) is the casting. Originally, Paul Walker was set to play the older version of Dawson. When he died suddenly, the part was given to James Marsden, who is a fine actor and actually may be the best part of the movie. Unfortunately, he shares his character with Luke Bracey, playing Dawson as a teenager. While a suspension of disbelief is usually required in these sorts of situations anyway, it’s stretched beyond belief here. Marsden and Bracey look nothing alike, for starters. Making matters worse: Bracey looks significantly older than 17 (in reality, he’s 25), so it’s hard to remember that during the flashbacks that comprise much of the running time, he’s supposed to be a teenager.
The casting bugged me because at this point, that’s what tends to save or doom a Sparks film for me. I’m used to the schmaltz, which is on full display here. I’m also used to the ridiculously convoluted twists, of which this film has a few. I won’t share them here, but I will say I saw them coming a mile away, and I was still surprised by how clichéd they were. The twists in particular made me feel like I was watching a fake romantic film inside a real romantic film (see: Friends with Benefits or Don Jon). Really, if anything, romances as forced as this make me want to watch Gone Girl again as an antidote. Which…yikes.