Friday, April 2, 2010

The Last Song: Slightly off-key

The Last Song (2010) • View trailer for The Last Song
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.2.10
Buy DVD: The Last Song • Buy Blu-Ray: The Last Song (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

I suppose this could be viewed as a back-handed compliment, but the fact is inescapable: Miley Cyrus lacks the acting chops to play a credible bad girl.

That's a bit of a problem, because this big-screen adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' The Last Song demands that Cyrus' Ronnie Miller be quite the little bee-yatch in the first act ... and she simply can't pull it off. The film grinds to a thumping halt every time she tries to be unpleasant; it's like an acting exercise, with a novice thespian pretending to be disagreeable ... and it simply doesn't work.
Having rejoined the human race, and finally flashing the smile that helped earn
Miley Cyrus an acting career, Ronnie shyly warms to her father's (Greg
Kinnear) patient overtures ... no doubt because she's as happy as a young girl
in love could be. Hang onto the good feeling, Ronnie, because it never
lasts in a Nicholas Sparks story!

On the other hand, the fault may lie with director Julie Ann Robinson, who fluffs several other key scenes in this film, a few of which have nothing to do with Cyrus. Robinson has a boatload of episodic TV experience  including Grey's Anatomy, Big Love and Pushing Daisies  so she obviously knows her craft; the question, then, is whether she can coax persuasive performances out of untrained actors.

The evidence would suggest not.

Greg Kinnear, who plays Ronnie's father, Steve, is this film's strongest asset; his work is delicate, sensitive and wryly humorous by turns. He acts circles around Cyrus ... and so does little Bobby Coleman (The Martian Child), who plays Ronnie's younger brother, Jonah. He's impressively endearing.

Because this is Nicholas Sparks territory, we can expect a scenario involving attractive romantic leads with troubled lives, who meet, fall in love and then find their blossoming relationship sabotaged by assorted contrived plot devices.

The Last Song certainly is no different; we open with divorced parents and troubled teens, move on to a sidebar issue involving an atrociously abusive boyfriend, digress momentarily with a dysfunctional family rent asunder by the tragic death of a child, and then build to the narrative's Heartbreaking Big Surprise (a "surprise" only to those not paying attention).

Oh, and we can't overlook the church fire that serves as a prologue, and generates its own whiff of intrigue: Was it arson? And, if so, by whom?

Cyrus deserves better than this stuff and nonsense; so does Liam Hemsworth, the hunky young actor who plays Will, the aw-shucks-charming yin to Ronnie's initially rude and petulant yang. They make a cute couple, and once we get past Ronnie's snotty phase  once Cyrus is able to slide back into the adorably cute, fun-loving persona that made her such a star as Hannah Montana  the film is on much safer ground.

Which, I've no doubt, came as an intense relief to all the young girls who packed a recent Sacramento preview screening. They must've been scandalized initially: I mean, really ... Miley Cyrus with a nose stud? Miley Cyrus acting nasty? Has the world come to an end?

The story begins as Ronnie and Jonah are dropped off by their mother, Kim (Kelly Preston), to spend the summer with their father, who lives in a gorgeous house poised at the edge of the water in a Southern beach community. (The place isn't quite as precarious as Diane Lane's B&B, in Nights in Rodanthe, but it's similarly cool. And Sparks is repeating himself.)

Whatever drove them apart  we never do find out  Kim and Steve remain close; both are concerned about Ronnie, who has gone rebellious by dressing in black and refusing to accept a Juilliard scholarship that she worked her entire life to obtain. Steve doesn't even try to control her; he and Jonah bond immediately, and start working together on an elaborate stained-glass window intended for the aforementioned church, being rebuilt as these events proceed.

Left on her own, Ronnie ignores the solicitous Will at first casual meeting, and instead falls in with local bad girl Blaze (Carly Chaikin) and her thug of a boyfriend, Marcus (Nick Lashaway). It's blindingly obvious that these two are toxic, and I suspect the script wants us to believe that Ronnie is smart enough to perceive this ... but Cyrus can't sell that much emotional complexity.

Fortunately, Ronnie gets distracted by the discovery of a cache of sea turtle eggs, buried in the sand in front of her father's house; she chases a hungry raccoon away and, not knowing what else to do, sets up a chair and plays sentry all night. Her choice of distraction? Not an iPod, not a stack of magazines, but Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy and sea turtles. This is a Sensitive Girl.

Wouldn't you just know, the local oceanarium volunteer sent out to mark and help protect the eggs turns out to be Will. That proves doubly handy for the subsequent romantic interlude: a montage set against quiet ballads that includes a splashy encounter in the oceanarium's largest fish tank.

Pretty cool job Will has there: one that allows him to frolic among the sea life with his new girlfriend, without getting fired. A-ma-zing.

OK, I'm being unnecessarily cranky. Truth be told, the film has become luxuriously romantic by now, with Robinson pushing the outer PG envelope while highlighting Cyrus' husky-voiced sensuality (a tad bit exploitative, since she doesn't turn 18 until the end of this year).

Hemsworth's Will is deliciously retro, his polite and genteel mannerisms about 40 years out of date but no less appealing; he even calls Steve "Sir." In response, Steve regards this young suitor with Kinnear's best sideways mock-baleful glare. Steve's brief appearance during Ronnie and Will's first shared turtle vigil is hilarious, as is young Jonah's reaction to the whole affair.

If the film could concentrate on these four people, we'd have a lovely time, even with the obligatory melodrama. But Sparks  who designed this property for Cyrus, and co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Van Wie  can't leave well enough alone. Things get more complicated with the introduction of Will's parents (Kate Vernon and Nick Searcy), and of course Blaze and Marcus aren't too far away.

At about this point, it becomes clear that the story's balance is off. Failing to get an adequate bead on what happened to Ronnie's parents is bad enough, but unanswered questions abound after we meet Will's folks, as frigid a couple as could be imagined. I'll give Vernon credit for being impressively brittle; I was afraid she'd bump into a chair and shatter into a million pieces.

A subsequent fight between Will and Marcus comes wholly out of left field: a scene so clumsy that I can't help feeling Robinson was looking elsewhere at the time.

Stars come with their own baggage when attached to high-profile projects, and one wonders if Cyrus' presence distracted Sparks into expanding Ronnie's role at the expense of everybody else. The result is frequently sloppy, with narrative lapses that suggest expository scenes left behind on the cutting-room floor.

Factor in the uneven acting, and the result is rather glaringly exposed as what drives any Sparks plot: overly manipulative melodrama.

Fortunately, Robinson rallies the troops for a third act that successfully tugs at all the proper heartstrings. The Last Song may not begin well, and the going may be rocky, but Kinnear, Cyrus and Coleman bring it home in reasonable style. Add the poignant ballad sung over the closing credits, and Cyrus' swooning target audience will be sent home with tear-streaked cheeks.

Certainly the desired result.

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