If you didn’t get your fill of sappy Nicholas Sparks melodrama with the February release of “Dear John,” grab a box of Kleenex and head to your local theater, because “The Last Song” has finally opened. Sparks must get some psychological fix from making audiences cry. There’s nothing wrong with catharsis, but I do take issue with stories that try to manipulate in such obvious ways. This movie, so far as I can tell, has no ambition other than to toy with our emotions, and not in a way that’s clever, intelligent, or subtle; it simply goes from one contrived situation to the next before ending on a shamelessly sentimental note. How could it end any other way when it makes use of such an inherently ominous title?
When I reviewed “Dear John,” I stated, rather inelegantly, that, “I can’t feel a certain way when a movie is telling me that I’m supposed to feel that way.” Here’s my chance to say the same thing, only more refined: A movie should not tell me to feel the feelings I’m supposed to feel. If I’m to have a genuine emotional payoff, the story must work with me and not at me; “The Last Song” was so aggressive in its attempts to get a reaction that I felt not like an audience member but an unwilling participant in a psychological study. There’s nothing to be gained by making us sit through a series of events so manufactured and heavy handed, they seem to have been borrowed from a weepy after school special.
I can find nothing wrong with the casting of Greg Kinnear, a decent and accomplished actor who does the best he can given the material. But the casting of Miley Cyrus is problematic. While her performance isn’t especially bad, it’s hardly remarkable – any young actress could have played this role and been just as good. Ah, but not every young actress has her face adorned on album covers, shampoo bottles, T-shirts, posters, and magnets. She’s marketable. If it’s advertised that she will star in a movie, people will come to see it. I do have hope that she will someday shed her teen idol image and emerge as a serious performer, but until then, she will have to make do with her status as a packaged product.
Cyrus plays Ronnie Miller, a seventeen-year-old piano prodigy. She hasn’t spoken to her father, former music professor Steve Miller (Kinnear), ever since he divorced her mother (Kelly Preston) and returned to the small, quiet beach community of Tybee Island, Georgia, his hometown. Moody and rebellious, Ronnie has stopped playing the piano, and she flatly refuses offers to attend Julliard. Against her wishes, she and her kid brother, Jonah (Bobby Coleman), are sent to spend the summer with Steve, which he hopes will finally give them a chance to reconnect. Ronnie’s attitude is a pall that hangs over the whole thing, as is Steve’s mission to rebuild a stained glass window from a church that burned under mysterious circumstances.
But what would this movie be without a romance? Here enters Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth), the hunky Volleyball player who’s also a mechanic and a volunteer for the local aquarium. Popular, charming, and annoyingly persistent, he soon gets Ronnie to drop her misery act, at which point they fall deeply in love. He eventually takes her to meet his wealthy parents, who, naturally, snub their noses at her in the most polite way possible. Will has his own tragic back story, although you’d hardly believe it – there are precious few moments in this movie when Hemsworth isn’t showing off a big dopey grin, drastically undermining his character’s personal problems.
Other dramas weave throughout the story, including a secret known only to Will and his best friend (Hallock Beals), a troubled young woman befriended by Ronnie (Carly Chaikin), and that troubled young woman’s boyfriend (Nick Lashaway), a good-for-nothing thug who enters and exits every one of his scenes as if he were drunk. Each could have contributed something meaningful had they not been so underdeveloped. A few light hearted moments are reserved for little Jonah, whose precocious dialogue and clever handling of money suggests the filmmakers were not inspired by an authentic ten-year-old. Consider a montage midway through the film, in which Ronnie tries on a number of dresses in a clothing store. In the annals of wardrobe montages, has there ever been one in which a young boy was an active participant?
If it seems like I’m ranting, if I’m coming off as bitter and jaded, I’m sorry, but this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Everything about it was just so artificial, and it was all forced upon me. Even the title was an attempt at my heartstrings, which is infuriating because it doubles as the movie’s own spoiler. I now realize that Nicholas Sparks is not a master manipulator, because manipulation is by definition underhanded; emotionally, he doesn’t want to trick you so much as beat you into submission, and his weapons of choice are formulaic plots with melodramatic turns of events. I can’t fault him for being successful at what he does, but I am starting to wonder why so many people are making it possible for him.- Chris Pandolfi