There’s something unmistakably poignant about the sight of Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden circling each other with barely concealed romantic longing in “The Best of Me,” though not for reasons anyone probably intended. The latest soap product to roll off the Nicholas Sparks assembly line, this tale of two former lovers reuniting after a 21-year separation also functions as a study of two terrific actors struggling to overcome the relentless mediocrity of their material. With its ill-motivated swerves into violent tragedy and the near-fatal miscasting of one pivotal role, the Relativity release seems likely to jerk as many laughs as tears from its target audience, though Sparks fans might still turn out in sufficient date-night droves to continue the author’s string of Hollywood hits.
Sparks has cranked out a fresh slab of romantic hokum every year or so since 1996, and the studios have largely kept pace with his output, hitching themselves to a high-yield cash cow that has produced at least one genuine four-hankie classic (“The Notebook”) and any number of lucrative duds (“The Last Song” and “The Lucky One,” among others). Like many films adapted from the author’s work — this time by writers Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe, with Michael Hoffman directing — “The Best of Me” spins a tale of young love imperiled by class prejudice, set against a curiously deracinated Southern backdrop, and infused with the sort of fuzzy-headed spirituality that often finds its characters peering skyward, as though straining to see their fates written in the stars.
One such stargazer is Dawson Cole (Marsden), a handsome, 39-year-old mechanic who miraculously survives an oil-rig explosion and wonders if he could be destined for some higher purpose. Right on cue, he learns of the death of his old friend and mentor, Tuck (Gerald McRaney), prompting a return to his Louisiana hometown. There, Dawson has an awkward reunion with his high-school sweetheart, Amanda (Monaghan), from whom he separated 21 years earlier under mysterious circumstances, and with whom he now jointly owns the plantation-style house where they used to spend hours in Tuck’s (and each other’s) blissful company.
Exactly what transpired between the couple is cleared up in lengthy flashbacks to the autumn of 1992, when Amanda (now played by Liana Liberato) falls in love with Dawson (Australian thesp Luke Bracey) — never mind that her father is one of the richest men in town, while the Coles are all mullets and bullets, a clan of white-trash ne’er-do-wells led by the unrepentantly nasty Tommy (Sean Bridgers, clearly enjoying himself). When Tommy beats up Dawson one time too many, leaving him with a lingering shiner that must have given the continuity supervisor a mild headache, Tuck welcomes the young lad into his home — an act of charity and friendship that sets a tense rivalry with the Coles in motion.
A good kid plagued by a crushingly low sense of self-worth, Dawson is too moody and withdrawn at first to respond to Amanda’s affections, but he soon comes out of his shell, as signaled by the vigorous baring of his torso. Before long he and his g.f. are making out in the rain, jumping into a nearby watering hole and getting frisky by the fireplace while the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Sweet Jane” plays in the background. (With Amanda’s spirited encouragement, Dawson also considers going to college; we know this because we see him burying his nose in a physics textbook.) Meanwhile, back in the painful present, the now ex-lovers struggle to make sense of their renewed attraction, complicated by the fact that Amanda is now married with children. Conveniently enough, her husband (Sebastian Arcelus) is a total jerk.
Monaghan and Marsden (stepping into a role originally intended for Paul Walker before his death last year) are effortlessly appealing, hugely talented actors who don’t often get the leading-role showcases they deserve. While this isn’t the vehicle to turn those fortunes around, their scenes together are easily the movie’s finest, as the grown-up Dawson and Amanda subtly negotiate the emotional distance between them and then gradually acknowledge that their love for one another remains unchanged. There’s sufficient drama in these moments to render superfluous the movie’s preposterously overplotted third act, recklessly endangering characters in whom we have zero investment to begin with; to call it “manipulative” would be giving it far too much credit.
Liberato (“If I Stay”) supplies a warm, vivacious presence as Amanda, and McRaney gives a gem of a performance as the lovable old coot who helps bring the star-crossed lovers together. But as the young Dawson, the 25-year-old Bracey proves a distractingly odd choice on a number of levels; seemingly cast for his ability to look wounded and withdrawn, he comes off as merely dull, uninvolving, and far too old for high school. Even if there were any resemblance between the two, Bracey’s hulking, uncharismatic performance would make him a poor fit for Marsden, whose wry, quicksilver charm may be his defining attribute as an actor. (“Somehow, you have gotten even better-looking,” Monaghan tells Marsden at one point, earning the film’s biggest and truest laugh.)
It’s gotten to the point where every new Sparks movie feels less like a standalone work than a minor variation on its predecessors (this year’s model of an attractive but unreliable automobile), and Hoffman (“The Last Station,” “Gambit”) is hardly the helmer to break the mold. At times there seems to be a weird visual disconnect between foreground and background, as if the characters had been digitally superimposed over a series of carefully processed Louisiana backdrops; the results feel not just artificial, but thoroughly disposable. And insofar as “The Best of Me” is unlikely to be hailed as the best of anything, audiences may as well console themselves by looking ahead to the star-crossed lovers of “The Longest Ride” and “The Choice,” two new Sparks adaptations already in the works.