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
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.