Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Longest Ride.

The Longest Ride (George Tillman, Jr., 2015)

BLOG NOTE: Check out the fancy high-concept sequel to this blog, Taste My Queue. (I say "high-concept," but I'm about to watch Dunston Checks In. SMH.)

Category: SPARKS BACK. LA DECIMA. We’re in the midst of quite a prodigious run of Sparks adaptations. 2015 marks the fourth straight year that one of these have been released, and the next one, The Choice, is due in 2016. What a time to be alive! 

But as is the case both literally and metaphorically with so many goddamned bodies of water in these movies, the tide may soon be turning. Per Wikipedia, all nine of the previous adaptations have made money, but the last one, The Best of Me, only barely turned a profit. This one, released on April 10, looks like it might lose money. (I blame myself for having waited over a week to see it.) So the automatic green light that has greeted these movies in the past decade may soon turn, at the very least, yellow.

Devotees of this blog are already more than familiar with the Sparks oeuvre and my thoughts on it. What’s worth repeating is the fact that the public image of Nicholas Sparks has undergone a bit of a hit lately. As noted in our last journey together, some of the accusations leveled at Sparks in a recent lawsuit are… troubling. We'll return to this later. You may have also heard recently that Nicholas Sparks and his wife have filed for divorce, which is obviously unfortunate. This Gawker post contains some remarks about the situation that I won’t repeat, but wish I had come up with.

For this year’s pilgrimage, I was accompanied by two Sparks enthusiasts and friends of the blog (FsOTB): Sam Thomas and, for the fourth movie in a row, Lindsay Filardo. The other people in the theater did not mind our frequent commentary, and for that they too are granted honorary FOTB status. Thx.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Based on the bestselling novel by master storyteller Nicholas Sparks [Editor’s note: ha!], The Longest Ride centers on the star-crossed love affair between Luke, a former champion bull rider looking to make a comeback, and Sophia, a college student who is about to embark upon her dream job in New York City's art world. As conflicting paths and ideals test their relationship, Sophia and Luke make an unexpected and fateful connection with Ira, whose memories of his own decades-long romance with his beloved wife deeply inspire the young couple. Spanning generations and two intertwining love stories, The Longest Ride explores the challenges and infinite rewards of enduring love.”

What I thought of the movie: OK. There are some positives here, most notably the acting. It’s actually uniformly pretty solid, especially Britt Robertson, who I look forward to seeing in the upcoming Tomorrowland. If they just changed a few things, this movie might have had a chance to be good. The things that they would have to change include several major plot lines, nearly all of the characterization, and pretty much the entire first hour and last half hour (the movie is about two hours long). But other than that it’s not bad!

What made this one more fun than some of the others was that Sparks actually tries to do a couple of new things here, and for someone like me who has now seen ten of these things, a little variety goes a long way. For instance, while the movie cannot help but take place in North Carolina, our main hunk Luke (Scott Eastwood) is a professional bull rider, rather than a professional sailboat fixer-upper or a professional romantic-letter-writer. We open with Luke suffering a traumatic injury while riding a scary bull named Rango. (I don’t think this is a good name for a scary bull. If I were naming a scary bull after a recent animated film, I’d go with Happy Feet.)

Meanwhile, college senior Sophia (Britt Robertson) lives in a sorority house with 25 cardboard cutouts that resemble women. All of the cardboard cutouts have Cowboy Fever, and they drag Sophia, who is studying and thus is Not Like The Other Girls, to a bull riding event populated by hundreds of other cardboard cutouts of men and women in cowboy boots. Luke successfully rides the bull, his cowboy hat falls off, she retrieves it and tries to return it to him, he tells her to “keep it,” which I have to imagine is a standard smooth smoothie bull rider line. He’s probably got a thousand hats just like it! They meet, they chat, and they eventually go on a date, even though she’s reluctant to get close to him since she’s leaving North Carolina after she graduates (in two months) for a fancy internship at an art gallery in New York.

(Lindsay: Britt Robertson looks like a Bratz doll [specifically, Valentina] so it's hard for me to believe anything she says about wanting to fit in or not being like other girls or ever having a rough go of it.)

We are ten minutes into the movie and I am actively rooting against the two of them getting together. Their conversations are wildly boring (Sam almost left, but didn’t by virtue of her FOTB status and the fact that I was her ride), and they clearly have nothing in common. The way Sparks tries to make them an interesting pair is by depicting Luke as a man out of time, the quiet, gentlemanly cowboy who shocks Sophia by actually asking her out on a date, as opposed to texting her “what are you doing later” like all the other guys do (actual thing she says). When Sophia finally agrees to let him take her out, we see Luke striding through her college campus in his full cowboy regalia holding a bouquet of flowers, and the college students look at him as if he is an actual alien. (Also, the cardboard cutouts sorority sisters literally moan after he arrives to pick her up. One yells, “I WANT A COWBOY.” I am not making this up.)

Meanwhile, Sophia is a Modern Woman, who is bemused and almost offended by his chivalry, his politeness, his insistence on paying for things, etc. Again, we’re just ten minutes into the movie and I already want to break things, because I know that everything that the movie has told us about Sophia is code for “she’s one of these uptight, overeducated feminists,” and that, by the end of the movie, he’s going to win her over at the expense of her independence, and that this is absolutely going to be yet another movie in which a complex, independent woman has her edges smoothed (in every sense of the term) by a Real Man. Ban Men.

The other thing to know about Sophia is that she is v interested in art. Not any particular artist or period or style or medium, just art. Good Lord does she love art. She rhapsodizes about art for a full minute on their date, while he furrows his brow at all the ten-cent words she’s using. (She mentions that she’s received a scholarship to college, and he says, “Scholarship! Pretty fancy.” Why do I do this to myself?) Art is a motif in the film. Take note.

One other thing about this scene from professional makeup expert Lindsay Filardo: “So he asks her what color her nail polish is, and she says ‘clear,’ and he marvels at how down to Earth she is. ‘This one's different, Ma,’ he later tells his mom. If I were his mom I'd be like, ‘Even if her nails are clear though she still did sit down to paint them so she's maybe not SO different.’”
I cannot stress enough how wrong these two characters are for each other. It’s also important to note how little we know about Sophia’s life, other than the fact that she’s in a sorority but is Not Like The Other Girls. The one piece of background information we get about her pre-college life is an unusually random tidbit: her parents are Polish immigrants who own a diner in New Jersey, so she had a “weird” childhood. This fact has no bearing on the plot and next to no bearing on her character; I think it’s thrown in to somehow try to establish the fact that Sophia and Luke are both outsiders, although it’s kind of hard to call Luke, a cowboy who is the word “unf” personified, an outsider. As Lindsay notes, I'm surprised Sparks decided to give Sophia the affliction ‘daughter of Polish immigrants who own a diner’ and not ‘cancer.’ Also, these Polish immigrants must be doing pretty well to be able to afford those sorority dues, which I imagine are not covered by her ‘fancy’ scholarship.”

So she mentions her internship and, as if hearing my shouts at the movie screen, tells him that this probably isn’t going be a thing. Disappointed, he drives her home in the rain (SPARKS THEME oh yeah it started to rain at some point, and oh yeah the date took place at some lake or whatever, I’m just numb to all this stuff at this point), and on the way they discover Ira (Alan Alda), whose car has gone off the road and crashed into a ditch. As Luke pulls him from the car, Ira calls out for a box that Sophia retrieves from the front seat, a box which we learn is full of old letters (Lindsay: “I knew it’d be memories!”) that he’d written to his late wife, Ruth. When Ira wakes up in the hospital, Sophia begins reading the letters to him, because he is old and can’t read anymore (but he can still drive). “Tell me your story, old man,” she says, “because your story exists to teach me important lessons about my own life, and also we need a framing device for this movie, and also people liked the flashbacks in The Notebook.”

The flashbacks give us the most notable new development in the entire Sparks oeuvre: THEY’RE JEWS. Ira and Ruth (played in the flashbacks by Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin) are openly, unmistakably Jewish. I’m not gonna lie to you folks, I was v nervous about this. You gotta respect the man for trying to broaden his horizons, but then also remember that time that he was recently sued for being, among other things, a huge anti-Semite? Things could have gone really badly here.

But inasmuch as anything in a Nicholas Sparks movie can go well, it goes well. As with The Notebook, the flashbacks are definitely the best part of the movie. We follow Ira and Ruth’s life together: how they meet in prewar North Carolina right after she’s immigrated from Austria, their courtship and engagement, her desire to start a large family and her love of Art (Art is a motif), his injury during World War II that renders him unable to have children, the issues they face that stem from their inability to procreate, etc. It’s not bad, although it’s certainly far from perfect. They write off the whole “why don’t they just adopt?” question with a throwaway mention that adoption was “not easy in those days,” which sure is convenient. All the stuff about art is just as grating in the flashbacks as it is in the present day. (Sparks clearly just Wikipedia-ed “art” before writing most of these lines.)

Let’s address the letters (pun v much intended). It’s just hilarious, at this point: there’s no way that this man can ever write a book without one character writing letters to another character. But there’s a new level of crazy in this movie, because it quickly becomes clear that these letters describe events that the two characters EXPERIENCED TOGETHER. And they’re not letters that he wrote to her years later: they’re from that time period! It’s like if you and I went to the grocery store together, and then that night I wrote you a letter about that time we went to the grocery store together. Why is he immediately writing her letters? Why is he mailing them? Why not just write a diary or something? Ira goes off to fight in World War II, but most, if not all, of the letters appear to come from either before or after the war, when they were together. For nearly all of the movie, the two characters are either dating or married. It makes no sense, and I think they know it, because at a certain point they just abandon the “Sophia reads Ira his old letters” device and just have Ira recount stories from his life to her. It’s so, so shoddy. (Also, they walk on the beach together at one point, and Sam leaned over to me and said, “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.” #Noah+Allie4eva)

Anyway. The present-day plot groans on alongside the flashbacks. After spending time with Ira together, they get closer to one another, eventually doing the do in an unusually-risqué-for-Sparks sex scene. Problems arise, which makes sense because, lest we forget, they are wrong for each other. There is the obligatory scene where the down-to-earth guy goes to some fancy/rich party that the fancy/rich girl is at and feels really out of place, a scene that is in so many of Sparks’s movies that I’ve lost count. In this movie, it’s an art gallery event that she invites him to for some reason. To that point: it is unclear how and why he has become her "boyfriend." A much more likely outcome for this sort of relationship involves her thinking, “Well, he’s simple, but my God is he hot, so let’s just have a no-strings-attached fling for the next two months, and then later this year I'll be living it up at Nobu with all my art friends, telling stories about his torso.”

So he goes to this thing, says something about how the art there looks like scribbles on a piece of paper (Classic Modern Art Insult), and insults her new boss. They fight. It’s dumb. (Lindsay: TBH it was way unprofessional for her to invite anyone, let alone her boyfriend of a month who she's gonna kiss a little and later scream at outside the event next to a huge window.”) God, that scene was trash.

All the while, there’s the looming problem of Luke’s bull riding. He claims that he needs to keep doing it because he needs the money so that his widowed mother can keep their ranch. (Lindsay: What would you DO if you were a widowed lady and your son was Scott Eastwood? I'm not gonna say it but I'm gonna strongly imply it!!!!” Ew.) As the movie progresses, though, it becomes clear that everyone else in his life is totally against him doing it. His mother never expresses a desire to stay there at all, and even tells him at the end of the movie that she literally does not care about the ranch. (There was an amazing moment in the theater: during a scene where Luke attempts to rationalize his continued bull riding, Sam leaned over to me and said, “It’s all I know!” And not five seconds later, Luke said those exact words. Sam “Nicholas Sparks” Thomas, ladies and gentlemen.)

Digression: at the risk of offending all of my readers (ha!) who are fans of bull riding: bull riding is trash. I’m not saying that it doesn’t take skill, but it is an insane, inhumane enterprise, and the film’s attempts to romanticize or at least normalize it fail miserably. The injuries sustained by bull riders in this movie (and presumably IRL) are horrific, and the fact that Luke keeps participating in this events indicates that the professional bull riding circuit lags behind even the NFL with respect to player safety. (Although there is one hilarious scene where Sophia looks up a YouTube clip of Luke’s major injury, which occurred before they met. The video, supposedly taken from a TV broadcast of the event, looks like it was directed by Michael Bay. You’ve never seen such camera angles in your entire life. There’s an overhead shot of him lying on the ground that is mind-boggling.)

But -- and this is important -- the movie wants us to support him (at least up to a certain point). Luke says that it’s inevitable that bull riders will get hurt, and that it’s only a matter of when and how bad. To which I, along with most of the characters in the film and most sane people on the planet, would say: THEN WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?! Are there literally no other jobs that he could find (in this economy)? Maybe go to night school, Chuck! And we’re supposed to root for this character! If you hadn’t already been taken out of the movie by this point, you get taken out of it by this stuff.

(Lindsay: The only thing less important than bull riding is art.)

After the art spat, they kind of accept it’s not really going to work. Sophia prepares to leave for New York, when, of course, at the very moment she’s about to get in the cab, he gets concussed by a bull, which for most of us would be astonishingly unlucky, but for him is "a thing that he pretty much expects to happen to him." She rushes to the hospital, where a doctor tells him his riding career is over. Luke, who has only about seventeen years of school left before he gets his medical degree, disagrees. Which is pretty much a relationship-ending thing to say, in my opinion. A human being of her supposed intelligence (not to mention her complete incompatibility with him in every arena other than the sack, but never mind) cannot even implicitly condone the idea of him wanting to continue bull riding. But, of course, she stays with him in North Carolina (still vehemently disagreeing with his desire to get back on the bull, at least), and thus jeopardizes her internship in New York. It is an unforgivable choice for the character to make, and I would have been madder about it if I still knew how to feel.

But it gets even worse! Ira tells Sophia the rest of his story: that he and Ruth overcame their issues and lived a long and happy life together, despite their lack of children. His importance to the plot thus exhausted, he immediately dies, and Sophia and Luke are invited to an auction of Ira and Ruth’s extremely valuable art collection, featuring works by Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and other names that Sparks found on Wikipedia’s “List of famous modern American artists.”

Now here comes the Sparksness. On the day of the auction, not long after his latest head injury, Luke goes to compete in an important event, and is tasked with riding Happy Feet Rango, the scary bull from the beginning of the movie. Despite all advice to the contrary, he tries his best, but is thrown from the bull and killed. Devastated, Sophia buys a painting of a beautiful bull, leaves it at Luke’s grave, and, vowing to never forget him, sets off to New York to begin her career in the art world. The end.


That is not what happens.

What happens is that Luke succeeds. Luke lasts the requisite eight seconds on the bull and dismounts safely. Luke wins the event. Luke does all of this despite having very recently undergone a traumatic head injury. We are meant to cheer when this happens. Most shockingly of all: Luke is not punished by the cruel God of the Sparks universe for his idiocy. QUITE THE OPPOSITE.

Luke goes to the auction, and is the only one among the sea of stuffed-shirt art enthusiasts to bid on a portrait of RUth that her former student had painted of her, winning it for $600. Sophia forgives him for everything and they reconcile.

And then.

Ira’s lawyer Howard Sanders, the third Jewish character to ever appear in a Sparks film, reveals that Ira’s will contained a clause stipulating that the person who bought that portrait of Ruth would receive the ENTIRE COLLECTION.

That is what happens.

I’ll let Lindsay take it from here: So they become millionaires! (Well, he does, but you'd better believe she's on board now.) They quickly build an enormous, gleaming museum where she can bring ART to the good ranchers of North Carolina! They run into a lake, both doffing their expensive clothes to reveal the perfect bodies underneath, and the movie ends. Later that night, I found a Swedish Fish in my bed and ate it.

How I felt after the movie ended: Here’s the thing that is so mind-bendingly insane about this movie: it would have been BETTER with that fake sad ending that I made up. I mean, it still wouldn’t have been a good movie, but I think that boilerplate insane Sparksian manipulative ending would have been more fitting. (This shows you just how far I’ve fallen since starting this blog. I am advocating insane manipulative death twist endings at this point.)

“Love requires sacrifice,” Ira tells Sophia right before he dies. That’s the lesson, inasmuch as there is one, from the flashback scenes: Ruth sacrifices her desire to have children because she loves Ira so much, and Ira sacrifices… well, he takes one to the nads during the war, but other than that he kind of gets whatever he wants. (He’s a Man, after all.) Anyway. The sad ending I made up, in which Luke doesn’t sacrifice for Sophia, tries to keep on bull riding and dies tragically, would have been far more poignant. Sophia would have learned a real lesson about love, and eventually would have moved on with her life, never forgetting the boring cowboy who taught her how to ride a horse (not a euphemism, but also very possibly also a euphemism).

But instead, we get a deus ex machina, a total BS cop-out of an ending. We get a movie that sidesteps all the hard choices that the characters should be making here. Luke doesn’t have to reckon with the fact that he’s selfishly taken his life in his hands multiple times, over the protestations of literally everyone he cares about; he gets to quit not because he wants to or realizes he’s wrong, but because he’s fallen ass-backwards into a fortune. Sophia doesn’t have to challenge herself in New York and pursue her dream job, she has it fall into her lap in North Carolina. And so we’re left with two characters, characters who the movie does not even remotely convince us are meant to be together (I give them six months, tops), who are in the 99th percentile of physical attractiveness, and who through no hard work or sacrifice of their own see their wildest dreams come true. Taste My “Must Be Nice.”

Saturday, April 4, 2015


1. If you are a friend of the blog (FOTB), check out the Sequel of the Blog (SOTB), Taste My Queue.

2. APRIL 10TH.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Best of Me.

The Best of Me (Michael Hoffman, 2014)

Category: Sad movies whose titles are similar to those of Foo Fighters songs. So many of the lyrics of that song perfectly describe my twisted relationship to the film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks. “I’ve got another confession to make / I’m your fool.” “Were you born to resist or be abused?” “Are you gone and on to someone new?”

That last one is key. This blog, a blog I started four years ago and for which I used to write something every single day, is now only a thing when somebody decides to adapt another one of this schmo’s books to the delight of rubes everywhere. So yeah, technically I’m gone and on to someone new, but every now and again I like to check in to make sure someone’s getting the best, the best, the best, the best of us, the aforementioned rubes.

So we’ve got ourselves the ninth sad movie based on books written by Nicholas Sparks, the alleged racist, homophobic, anti-Semite. (If you look up the word “schadenfreude” in the dictionary, there is a picture of my face when I read that article. Please read it. If you thought the Donald Sterling stuff was bad, just wait until you get to the Alzheimer’s part.) I used to feel a little bad about berating this man on the Internet just because I didn't like his movies. I do not feel bad about this anymore.

My familiarity with this issue: I have seen all eight of the previous Sparks adaptations. I legitimately thought half of one was good (DAT GOSLING), and have described the rest as “manipulative,” “heavy-handed,” “extremely boring,” “cringeworthy, dull, stale, overheated, occasionally infuriating,” “torturously contrived,” and “lugubrious piffle.” I’m on the record with all this.

Here’s something: The following is a quote from Nicholas Sparks’s memoir, Three Weeks with My Brother, a book I have not a read and a quote I have only read because it was on his Wikipedia page:

“‘Your problem is that you're bored. You need to find something to do,’ [Sparks's mother said]...Then she looked at me and said the words that would eventually change my life. ‘Write a book.’... I was nineteen years old and had become an accidental author."

Three thoughts on this:

#1: What the hell does “accidental author” mean? (I know that quote has an ellipsis in there, but Lord knows I’m not actually going to seek out this book to find out if there is more in the way of an explanation there.) I mean, I know he’s written like fifty books and they all have the same plot, but that’s still not quite “accidental.” Maybe he’s saying it with that particularly annoying brand of false modesty that a lot of writers have, where they’re like, “whoops guess I somehow just wrote a best-selling novel idk how that happened lol.” Or maybe books just started popping out of his old, dusty, magical typewriter, like on Ghostwriter.

#2: Wasn’t he in college when he was nineteen? How can you really be “bored” in college? There’s a lot of stuff to do! He went to Notre Dame! Go to a football game or something!

#3, and most importantly: I swear to God, this is the most boring, least evocative answer to the question “How were you inspired to become a writer?” in the history of literature. Like, when Hemingway was 18, he went off to fight in World War I, drove an ambulance, got severely wounded, fell in love with a nurse, etc., and when he came home he became a novelist. When Sparks was 19, his mother said to him, “holy shit Nicholas you are the most boring person on Earth, for the love of God why don’t you do something, ANYTHING, like… I don’t know, write a book or something,” and he was like, “uh OK I guess.” AND IT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. Nicholas Sparks is the literary equivalent of a kid being forced to do the dishes by his mom. Sure, he gets them done, but the work is just so uninspired.

OK, back to The Best of Me. When I watched the trailer for this I was instantly struck by, among other things, the ridiculous incongruity of the film’s casting. Namely, that this guy (Luke Bracey) is playing the high school version of this guy (James Marsden). Am I crazy, or (a) do they look nothing alike, and/or (b) does Luke Bracey look older/taller than James Marsden? At the very least, did they ever get the two of them to stand side by side and ask folks who they thought was older? Or if they resembled each other in the slightest? I wonder if this will distract me while watching the film, or if it will eventually fade in the background in the wake of so much other ridiculous nonsense. LET’S FIND OUT. 

(SPOILERS AHEAD but shut up it's not like you're ever going to see this.)

(Also, as per tradition, I saw this film with FOTB Lindsay Filardo, who, let us never forget, looked like this after seeing the film The Last Song. Lindsay’s comments are italicized below.)

(Also also, I would apologize for how long this post is, but I write in this blog like once a year now. Read a few hundred words a month and by the time you're done there'll be another one of these movies out.)

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “After miraculously surviving an accident, Dawson believes there's a reason for his path in life. After being reunited with his high school love Amanda, he realizes that maybe it's a chance to make her fall in love with him all over again, while apparently she never stopped loving him... Life happened and tore them apart. Will they be able to reunite? Was it destiny that brought them back together?”

What I thought of the movie: OK. There are some actually good things about this movie. The four main actors are all at least pretty good, and Marsden, in his second trip on the Nicholas Sparks Roller Coaster of Treacle, is quite good. There’s also a brief appearance by Lester Freamon from The Wire, which is always a good thing. (Although I’m sure Sparks did his best to limit his screen time, since he doesn’t like Those People.) (Allegedly.)

No, folks, the fault in this movie lies not in its stars, but in its Sparks, because holy Lord does this movie have some ridiculous, terrible plot twists. Let’s be clear: most of the movie is just your standard Sparks melodrama (which is obviously not great), but the acting really makes it kind of almost work – until the ending. It's honestly such a credit to the non-Sparks people involved in this movie that, as I watched it, I feel like I didn’t entirely comprehend how insane it was. But if you were to, say, read a detailed plot summary instead of actually seeing the film, the arrant absurdity of its twists and turns would become impossible to ignore, and you’d sit there and mutter to yourself, “Wait, did that actually happen?” I am honored to let you cut out the middleman.

We open with Marsden, working on a Louisiana oil rig, reading a book by Stephen Hawking during his downtime so we know he’s Not Like The Other Idiot Oil Rig Workers. There’s a big explosion, and after saving the lives of two coworkers, Marsden is blown clear off the rig into the water, where he stays for four hours before tragically dying, and that’s the end of the movie. Sorry, I got that slightly wrong: he’s in the water for four hours, yes, and he’s presumably unconscious and not breathing during that time, yes… but he survives, and he’s really not all that worse for wear. The doctor, who went to medical school, calls it “miraculous.”

We then meet an unhappy Michelle Monaghan and her husband, a cartoon villain. At their son’s high school graduation party, someone asks the kid what he’s thinking of majoring in, and the dad says “FINANCE HE’S GONNA MAJOR IN FINANCE BECAUSE I AM A FINANCE PERSON AND MY SON WILL GROW UP TO BE JUST LIKE ME, A MAN WHO IS RICH AND EVIL AND RUDE AT GRADUATION PARTIES.” Just as token of a douche as you could possibly imagine in a movie.

Lindsay: This is where the frequent Budweiser product placement started to bother me. The rich dad goes, "Hand me a Bud," and the kid hands him an electric blue can of Bud Light. Rich dads don't drink Bud Light! They don't serve Bud Light at their swanky graduation parties!  

We later learn that she accidentally got pregnant with the kid in college, and that she's generally unhappy. The film tells us this by showing her sitting on her back porch at night, looking up at the stars. When her son comes outside and asks what she’s doing, she says, “Thinking.” Happy people don’t look up at the stars and think.

Marsden and Monaghan, henceforth referred to as Marsdonaghan, both get a phone call from Lester Freamon, an estate attorney for a recently deceased man named Tuck Hostetler (straight out of the Nicholas Sparks Old Fashioned Southern Name Generator; oh yeah, Marsden’s character’s name is Dawson Cole lolololol). The two of them have a chilly reunion and learn that Tuck has written them each a letter (SPARKS TROPE) and left them his house in his will. (Seriously, Lester Freamon is in the movie for less than five minutes, and at no point does anyone say to him, “Damn, Calvin, you know I got the bingo tonight!” So that was disappointing.)

We flash back to 1992, which honestly in this movie feels like the 1955 in Back to the Future. Young Dawson Cole is played by Luke Bracey (the aforementioned Guy Who Is Taller Than And Looks Nothing Like James Marsden) is a sullen loner, adept at fixing cars and not adept at flirting with Young Michelle Monaghan (her character’s name is Amanda, and she’s played by Liana Liberato, which is apparently a person’s name). She’s a rich girl with a heart of gold – we soon learn that she plans to become a lawyer and work to defend the rights of children or some such – and she quickly abandons her rich, preppy friends to throw herself at this hunka hunka burnin’ sullen loner. After having him fix her VW Bug (not a euphemism), she asks him out on a date at the local watering hole in very 1955 fashion.

Lindsay: In Nicholas Sparks's 1992, people drive ancient VW Bugs, nobody is on the pill, and a woman going to law school is quirky.

We learn that Dawson Cole (do you think Sparks flipped a coin to decide between calling him Dawson Cole or Cole Dawson? I think so) is not just your standard poor guy from the wrong side of the tracks: he’s from as far across the tracks as humanly possible. He lives in what appears to be Carcosa: a weird dangerous place in the Louisiana wilderness with chained-up dogs and people randomly shooting guns in the front yard. It’s some sort of drug-running hub overseen by Dawson’s dad, who menacingly and inscrutably wears a vest at all times, and his goons, one of whom looks exactly like MacGruber. It’s a bad scene, and after VestDad slaps him around a bit, blackening his eye, Dawson’s had enough and runs off, seeking refuge in some dude’s garage.

By now I’m sure you’ve noticed the similarities between this film and The Notebook. We have two parallel plots, involving older versions of young characters who fall in love – except this time the older characters are young enough to still maybe get back together. We have a rich young white girl from the South (Nicholas Sparks is the world’s most dedicated chronicler of rich young white girls from the South) who falls for a rough young white guy – except this time the guy’s, like, really rough. We'll come back to this.

Anyway. The garage that Dawson’s sleeping in belongs to crusty old Tuck “Everlasting” Hostetler, who lets him stay because he knows what a rough family situation the kid has. Dawson doesn’t show for their date because of his black eye, and Amanda, as thirsty as the mom in Back to the Future, shows up at Tuck’s and berates him for standing her up. When he reveals that he didn’t want to be seen in public with the black eye, she replies, “Well then take me somewhere private.” HEAVENS. They ascend the town’s water tower (not a euphemism) to sit and chat about life and the nature of destiny, and within like thirty seconds are In Love. Later, when VestDad and the Goons eventually come to Tuck’s place, Tuck threatens to shoot them, and then actually shoots up their pickup truck, again all within like thirty seconds. This is a film in which everything escalates quickly and no one ever thinks of calling Child Services.

The destiny thing is a key theme, as it is in every Nicholas Sparks adaptation. We are encouraged to believe that the characters each have One True Love that they are meant to pursue with a single-minded doggedness that would make Javert go, “Yo chill out for a second.” At the beginning of the film, Young Dawson doesn’t believe in destiny because his life sucks (“Destiny is the name the fortunate give to their fortunes,” he says swiftly and unbelievably). But being a character in a Nicholas Sparks book who doesn’t believe in destiny is kind of like being an atheist in a Left Behind book: sooner or later you’re gonna change your mind, or die, or both.

Back in the present, Monaghan’s initial chilliness thaws as they go through Tuck’s house and reminisce. She tells Marsden about her unhappy family life and her thwarted law school dreams, and she also reveals that she had a daughter who died of cancer. I cannot emphasize enough how little this has to do with anything else in the movie. It doesn’t advance or relate to the plot in any way, and it does not illuminate anything that we don’t already know about the characters. Now I’m not saying that every single thing in a movie has to have a direct impact on the plot or anything. I’m just saying that Nicholas Sparks is so addicted to making us sad that at this point he’s just throwing in extraneous dead daughters for funsies.

Lindsay: I don't feel like the husband was stopping her from going to law school. He seemed really deeply apathetic towards her. Also, they later share a 6-pack of Bud Heavy (PRODUCT PLACEMENT) after she said, "We both started drinking after we lost [our daughter]. Then I quit... and he never did." Whatever. This bothered me a lot.

So Marsdonaghan are starting to reconnect, but there’s some lingering tension present. The reason for this tension remains unspoken because we haven’t gotten up to that point in the flashbacks yet. Let’s speed this the hell up.

Back in 1992, there’s the obligatory three-second-long first-time-having-sex scene (presumably they cut stuff out, although maybe not that much? BA BOOM), followed by the obligatory scene set at a party thrown by the girl’s rich parents at which the girl’s rich dad offers the guy money to stay away from his daughter. (I am fully willing to believe that this sort of thing has happened in real life. I just think that it has happened more often in Nicholas Sparks books than it has in real life. It happens in every single book. I can’t even make fun of it anymore. There’s nothing more to say.)

Young Dawson tells the dad off, of course. The kids are superawesomely in love and Dawson’s ready to pick her up for the Enchantment Under The Sea dance prom, when VestDad and the Goons come back to the house and beat the Tuck out of Tuck. Dawson discovers this and speeds over to Carcosa, accompanied by his plot device of a cousin. There’s a struggle and while wrassling on the ground with VestDad, Dawson accidentally shoots his cousin RIGHT IN THE FACE. (Oh and also the cousin’s girlfriend is pregnant. Don’t stop now, Sparks. Lay it on thicker.) Dawson testifies against his drug dealing folks, but still gets eight years in jail. Amanda visits regularly, but after a while Dawson won’t let her see him, knowing that she needs to move on with her life. End of 1992 plotline. I looked over at Lindsay at this point, and, well…

Lindsay: The only thing I have to say about the fact that I started crying is LEAVE ME ALONE

So… this could be the whole movie, right here. This is pretty much where The Notebook left off. Marsdonaghan even have the whole “WHY DIDN’T YOU WRITE ME” scene, in which they talk about how he was wrong to shut her out, that she should have been free to make that decision on her own, and he admits that he was wrong. They recreate the romantic moments that led to them getting together in the first place, fall in love again, and live happily ever after. EXCEPT. That last part is not a thing.

Because the next thing that happens is that, after a night of doin’ the do, Marsden says that they can’t do this, that she has a husband and a child and that she can’t give up her life to be with him. Notice that she is not the one saying any of this. In fact, she doesn’t say… anything in this scene, really. She just tearfully agrees at the end of it. WAIT, DOES NO ONE REMEMBER WHAT THEY WERE LITERALLY JUST TALKING ABOUT, THAT HOW SHE SHOULD HAVE BEEN FREE TO MAKE THESE KINDS OF DECISIONS ON HER OWN?? It just goes to show you what a mansplaining sexist Sparks is, because it would have been so easy to write the exact same scene with Monaghan as the one to break it off. It really wouldn’t have changed anything at all. But soon enough, we realize that this was just another plot device to keep this lurching old tearjerking machine clanking along.

Earlier in the film, Marsden sees his cousin’s son (the one who the girl was pregnant with when he accidentally killed his cousin) in town, hanging around with MacGruber and other hick types. After sending Monaghan back to her family, Marsden meets up with the kid’s mom and learns that the kid has been doing various drug errands for VestDad and the Goons. So Marsden heads over to Carcosa to rescue the kid, avoiding a confrontation, because, as Marsden points out, time is a flat circle these hick freaks definitely don’t want to go back to jail. File that away for a minute.

Lindsay: By the way, the cousin Dawson kills and the cousin's son are literally played by the same very distinct-looking actor, which was a weird weird WEIRD choice considering young and old Dawson look like they are of different species.

Meanwhile, Monaghan goes home to find her cartoon villain of a husband, wearing a golf shirt, listening to golf on the radio (maybe the funniest thing in the entire movie), and sitting at his desk in front of three computer monitors that all have colorful graphs on them, because of finance. It gets even better: she makes them dinner and he takes a phone call right as they sit down, a phone conversation about golf (duh) that literally begins with him saying “Hello, Chazz.” (OK that's the funniest thing in the entire movie. CHAZZ.) This is all enough for her to change her mind (or at least the mind that Marsden made up for her when he told her they couldn’t be together), and she tells the husband she’s in love with Marsden the next day. The husband really doesn't seem to care all that much, as he's probably having an affair with Chazz.

Now here’s where it gets insane. Raise your hand when you see where Sparks is going with this.

Monaghan gets a phone call that her son has been in a serious car accident. Arriving at the hospital, she learns that he has a torn heart valve, and… well, we’ll come back to this.

That same night, Marsden’s driving in town alone when he comes up to some railroad tracks. As the train approaches, another car speeds ahead of him across the tracks, while a third car pulls in behind him and starts ramming him from behind (not a euphemism) and toward the train. It’s MacGruber and the other goon, who, when their car-ramming plan doesn't work, literally take out guns and start shooting at Marsden. He’s able to hide and incapacitate the two of them as the train passes on… at which point we hear the voice of VestDad, waiting on the other side of the tracks with a rifle, which he then uses to SHOOT HIS SON IN THE CHEST AND KILL HIM.

(Oh, by the way, Monaghan’s kid needs a heart transplant. Are you all raising your hand by now?)

I want to tell all of you that I was LEGITIMATELY shocked by this. I had a strong feeling that Marsden would die, but I expected it to be an accidental death, or at least a heroic death. I thought he would die as he was saving the kid from the drug dealers, or in another oil rig explosion, or something else like that. I did not expect VestDad, a shallow, sadistic cardboard cutout who has literally no motivation or arc as a character in the slightest, to just shoot him dead on the street in town one night. They weren’t even in Carcosa! What happened to VestDad not wanting to go back to jail? Did he consult with the goons after Marsden left? “Yeah on the one hand, I don’t really want to go back to jail, but on the other hand, it might also be nice to kill my son in cold blood on the street for no real reason.”

So this all happens. There’s an epilogue: a year later, Monaghan’s divorced the cartoon villain and is back on the road to becoming a lawyer, working as a paralegal. The son calls her and tells her that he’s found out whose heart he has.

Lindsay: When the kid is telling Monaghan whose heart he got, he says James Marsden died at 39. I don't know much about heart transplants, but I would think that's kind of an old heart for a 17-year-old? Like by the time the kid is 50, his heart will be 72. Also, did nobody else die that night? Isn't New Orleans kind of a murder capital?

She goes to Tuck’s old house and finds a letter (SPARKS TROPE) that Marsden wrote and left on the kitchen table for her a year earlier, on the off chance that he'd get shot and killed by his father on the street one night and that he'd then donate his heart to her son and cause her to check out the house again for the first time in a year even though she co-owns it and almost certainly went there after his funeral but somehow missed seeing the letter then even though it's on the freakin' kitchen table. There’s a voiceover about destiny that mirrors the stuff they talked about earlier, and that’s that.

Lindsay: The message on destiny is complicated here, because if Dawson had never met Tuck, he would not have spent eight years in prison, and he would not have been shot dead by his father at 39 years old. How's that for destiny.

How I felt after the movie ended: I was kind of in shock about the ending, but, again, it somehow didn’t feel as bad as most of the rest of these movies. The insanity of the ending took a little while to sink in, and, as broad as some of the characters were, the main actors really weren’t bad at all. There were even some nice, charming moments scattered throughout the first part of the movie. I honestly might have almost liked it if it had omitted that last half hour and just been a harmless knockoff of The Notebook.

I’d like to think Sparks, in between bouts of virulent (alleged) racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, thought about this. He’d had an idea for a book, an idea that he knew would make a perfectly fine book on account of he’d already written it and called it The Notebook. But maybe Nicholas Sparks has reached a point in his life where “perfectly fine” just won't do anymore. Maybe he's striving for more. And so he looked deep into his soul and thought back to the words his mother once told him: “Your problem is that you're bored. You need to find something to do. Write a book.” And, by God, that’s what he did.