‘The Best of Me’: Not the brightest of the Nicholas Sparks romances

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When it comes to crafting stories guaranteed to pull at your heartstrings, best-selling author and screenwriter Nicholas Sparks tops the list.

“The Notebook” is his best known and most popular book, but other Sparks novels turned into angst-packed romantic dramas that resonated strongly with audiences have included “Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Dear John,” “Last Song” and  “Nights in Rodanthe.”

Now comes the big-screen adaptation of Sparks’ “The Best of Me,” and the combination of the author’s huge built-in audience base and the sex-appeal draw of James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan undoubtedly will help rack up big numbers at the box office for the film’s opening weekend.

Though the story is highly predictable and typically Sparks-like in exploiting all chances to make moviegoers grab for their hankies, “The Best of Me” was a better film than I expected. Much of that is due to the performances delivered by Marsden, Monaghan, Liana Liberato and especially young Australian actor Luke Bracey as the younger version of Marsden’s character.

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I just wish they and Gerald McRaney (in a strong co-starring role) had a better script with which to work. One gets the feeling the actors had to repress a lot not to wince as they were forced to deliver quite a few trite and hackneyed lines.

The story weaves back and forth between the present and 20 years in the past. Dawson (Bracey/Marsden) is a shy and decent guy, born into a trashy family with a cruel, drug-dealing father. Dawson falls in love with Amanda (Liberato/Monaghan), who comes from a wealthy, upscale family in the small Southern town where they live.

Yes, once again we have that old class-conflict love affair, predictably challenged by the rich girl’s disapproving father (Jon Tenney).

Dawson and Amanda eventually go their separate ways and are reunited years later when they return to attend a funeral. Of course, their teenage love still burns brightly, and as Amanda is now married (miserably so), a series of complications and roadblocks face the star-crossed couple.

We’ve seen this story told in similar fashion so many times in the past. I only wish we could have had it delivered in a fresher, less cliché-filled package.

[s3r star=2.5/4]

Relativity presents a film directed by Michael Hoffman and written by Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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