(by Dustin Putman
Author-turned-screenwriter Nicholas Sparks tailor-made "The Last Song" for Miley Cyrus (2009's "Hannah Montana: The Movie"), who was looking to branch out from her Disney Channel roots and tackle a dramatic feature along the lines of 2002's "A Walk to Remember." Sparks fulfilled his duties, and Cyrus got what she asked for: a greatest-hits pastiche of just about every other Sparks novel that has ever been written. So sudsy, predictable and artificially manipulative that it approaches self-parody, the film can scarcely be taken seriously as the genre clichés mount to a near-laughable degree and the weepy, over-pronounced music score threatens to drown out everything else in front of and behind the camera. Cyrus may have been aiming to take on a more serious role than she's used to, but even the "Hannah Montana" movie had more emotional truth than this unconvincing hogwash. Article continues below
17-year-old Veronica "Ronnie" Miller (Miley Cyrus) and younger brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) are shipped off to the Georgia shore to spend the summer with their semi-estranged father Steve (Greg Kinnear). While Jonah strives to make the best of it and spend some quality time with his dad, Ronnie is a brooding sort who still hasn't forgiven him for walking out on the family years ago. Threatening to give up her musical talent and an offer to study at Julliard, Ronnie knows how to pout and has a nose stud to prove it. Things brighten when she meets frequently shirtless volleyball player and part-time aquarium worker Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth) on the beach, and before long they've fallen in love despite their surrounding naysayers. This being a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, the characters' happiness is short-lived as no less than Will's snooty parents, a mystery involving arson, and a terminal illness eventually rear their ugly heads.
Subtlety is not the strong suit of "The Last Song." Neither is believability, depth, or good writing. Playing out less like a movie and more like a comprehensive checklist of every convention ever touched upon in a romantic melodrama, the picture fails at activating the tear ducts but sure gets the ocular muscles working as the viewer's eyes roll from one side to the other. Will is drawn to Ronnie from the moment he accidentally knocks her milkshake all over her, and before long they are spending time together in tidy pop song-laden montages. One scene after they first kiss, Will is creepily writing, "Forever," in black marker on Ronnie's shoe, carving their initials into a tree, and they are professing their deep love for one another. They even get into a mud fight. Do they have any common interests or goals, or perhaps something in both their pasts that connect them? In the magical world of soap opera cinema, none of that matters if the guy has muscles and looks good wet. Naturally, his rich parents do not approve of Ronnie and assume he's going away to Vanderbilt for college in the fall. Naturally, the "perfect" outer facade of Will's mansion hides family loss and guilt. Naturally, he secretly has ties to the church fire that the rest of the community has incorrectly blamed Ronnie's father—a stainedglass window maker—for. Naturally, once Ronnie finds out the truth, there's a falling-out between them.
By the time a character starts talking about medicine while insisting he or she is fine, all the viewer can do is count down the minutes until inevitable tragedy occurs. First-time director Julie Anne Robinson and writers Nicholas Sparks and Jeff Van Wie dodge tactfulness in lieu of wallowing in seemingly never-ending scenes of characters looking sad, crying, and/or trying to put on a brave face. A clumsy, shallow cross between 1988's "Beaches" and 2000's "Here on Earth"—both infinitely superior films—it's all so mechanically telegraphed here that there isn't an honest or touching moment to be found. Indeed, the emotions within "The Last Song" are strictly juvenile and pandering. If a glimmer of wisdom were to show up, the film print might threaten to explode in the projector.
"Nobody makes me feel like you do. I don't want to lose you." Yes, those words are uttered—and in that order—in one of the countless snippets of dialogue that read hacky and sound even worse when spoken aloud by actors who can only do so much with the material provided. Miley Cyrus has an effortless onscreen charisma, but, as the troubled Ronnie, she is unable to bring enough layers to the part for it to live and breathe. She smiles, she tears up, she gets angry, and does little in between. As love interest Will, Liam Hemsworth (2009's "Knowing") looks the part of a hunky male lead, but stumbles over the sappy words in the script and the lack of development between his character and Ronnie. Greg Kinnear (2010's "Green Zone") is fine as father Steve, looking to reconnect with Ronnie and make amends for the mistakes he's made, but the actor cannot fully hide his embarrassment at the tripe he has to perform. Meanwhile, Kelly Preston (2009's "Old Dogs") shows up for only a couple of days' work as mother Kim and gets out while the getting is good. Finally, Bobby Coleman (2009's "Post-Grad") somehow acts circles around his elder co-stars as Ronnie's vulnerable kid brother Jonah. His impressive turn is the only one with something going on beneath the surface. Otherwise, that's the one element hard to come by. "The Last Song" is all surface and no subtext. It's glossy, it's prepackaged, it's as fake as Miley Cyrus' famed, state-named alter ego. Better luck next time.