Strike one: it’s a Nicholas Sparks movie. Strike two: it stars Miley Cyrus. Strike three: it’s a Nicholas Sparks/Miley Cyrus movie that tries to understand the complex world of the mopey goth alterna-teen. Because, really, “The Last Song” is about as mopey and alterna-goth as a Thomas Kinkade mug.
Yes, it’s Hannah Montana as a cynical brooder, and no, the movie does not pull it off. It barely even tries – about fifteen minutes in, it gives up entirely on the black fingernail polish and the punk rock boots and focuses less and less on the moodiness, to the point where, when Cyrus’ character breaks down and confesses that she’s been “so mean” to her dad, we have to think way, way, way back to the first few scenes, when she was sorta rude a couple times in that pissy teenager kind of way. After all, convincing us that the girl that gave us “Party in the USA” is a Debbie Downer takes effort, and so, after setting the stage with a handful of “oh, she has a few complaints” set-ups, it figures it’d just be easier to show her riding in a pickup truck with her dopey jock boyfriend, singing along to Maroon 5.
The screenplay comes direct from Sparks himself (co-writing with rookie scribe Jeff Van Wie), and it plays pretty much exactly how you’d think from Sparks’ first time adapting his own work. (I would mention director Julie Anne Robinson, a TV vet making her feature debut here, but her entire job involves nothing more than making sure Sparks’ beachfront sunsets appear as written.) There’s not so much a story as there is a smattering of disjointed melodramatic scenes peppered with stiff, unwieldy dialogue. “The Last Song” almost plays as a direct parody of Sparks’ novels, running down the checklist of romantic crises and generic settings. (When discussing the movie with my wife, she had merely to ask “which one dies?”)
Cyrus plays Veronica “Ronnie” Miller, a piano prodigy who, along with precocious little brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman), has come to spend the summer with dad Steve (Greg Kinnear) at his rustic/gorgeous beachfront property, one of those quaint small towns untouched by chain stores and name brands. Conveniently, the house is close enough to the local boardwalk carnival that Ronnie can walk there in two minutes and far enough away that you can’t hear the roller coasters or see the lights.
(You know what this boardwalk carnival needs? The shirtless saxophonist from “The Lost Boys.”)
She’s still mad about her parents’ years-ago divorce, the distress of which inspired her to get arrested once for shoplifting (memo to movie: if you’re trying to make your female lead a goth-y rebel, don’t throw in lines like “I know stealing is wrong and I’ll never do it again!”) and give up her potential future as a piano prodigy (memo to movie: don’t tell us Ronnie hasn’t played piano in years and ask us to believe she got accepted to Julliard because they heard her play once when she was five, which was good enough for Julliard). She’s a handful, that one.
She quickly meets meat-faced jackhole Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth), a picture-perfect neighborhood rich kid who works a grungy part-time job despite being loaded/volunteers at the aquarium to show his sensitive side/has a secret past that’s only discussed whenever the plot requires it/is some sort of local-circuit beach volleyball champion because he is hunky.
(You know what these beach volleyball scenes need? Kenny Loggins music. Not even “Top Gun” had this much glistening body oil.)
Most of the plot involves Ronnie climbing out of her shell as she and Will romance it up, although it’s all so thin that whenever a conflict arises – say, Ronnie having to prove herself to Will’s hilariously over-the-top stuffy rich parents, or Will revealing he knows something about her dad’s arson charges (don’t even begin to ask) – it feels lazily tacked on in a weak effort to have something – anything – happen. Sparks loves scenes of Ronnie pushing Will away (literally, with both hands, although in case we don’t get it, he uses the phrase in dialogue, too), and so he gives us at least thirty of them, usually in response to something said by a bitchy character that otherwise has no bearing on the story.
The whole thing seems built out of some Nicholas Sparks Random Scene Generator. Consider the sequence when Will takes Ronnie aside – to, natch, a lakefront gazebo at sunset – and lets loose with a delirious yarn about his dead brother and his attempts to date every girl in town just to “feel alive.” Not counting another scene late in the film that brings this back up only to remind me that I had forgotten it completely, these shocking revelations have nothing to do with anything, playing only as an attempt to enrich the characters. And yet Sparks felt obligated to include this, because, what, you expect him to handle character growth with subtlety and wit?
Throughout the picture, we’re interrupted by a side story involving someone inexplicably named “Blaze” (Carly Chaikin), a bad girl who’s trapped in some vaguely bad relationship with some vaguely bad boyfriend (Nick Lashaway). These characters just sort of wander into the story at arbitrary intervals, so, I dunno, we can see how kindhearted Ronnie and Will are, or something.
The disconnect is so severe in some scenes that dialogue fails to match anything on screen. When Will stumbles upon Ronnie after she had fallen asleep on the beach, there’s oodles of talk about her miserable morning hair. It’s so hideous, in fact, that her “bad hair day” becomes a point of dialogue throughout the film. Except nobody told the make-up crew, who make Ronnie’s hair look exactly like it does in every other scene in the film. Egads.
(You know what this movie needs? A cast and crew that could pay attention.)
The film’s only saving grace is Kinnear, who’s a good enough performer to make his little corner of the movie tolerable. He graces his character with a certain lived-in calmness, and he maintains some sense of dignity, even after his character is dragged, pointlessly, into tone-deaf third-act melodrama included only because I suppose Sparks finally noticed that the Ronnie/Will romance wasn’t enough to carry through the entire picture. It’s a shame to see Kinnear dragged through the contrivances that wrap up the story, but he’s a good sport and musters through.
As for poor Miley? She doesn’t have the chops to carry a movie, even something like “The Last Song,” which is hardly the kind of movie that requires heavy lifting. But it’s hard to tell where her faults as an actor end and where the faults of the screenplay begin – it’s all one half-assed mush. She grimaces her way through the early scenes and grins her way through the later ones, and we never buy it for a second, while Sparks tosses us laughably heavy-handed metaphors he feels required to over-explain, like the subplot about the baby turtles hatching on the beach, a “fragile thing” surviving “against all odds,” which would make more sense as a symbol for Ronnie’s coming of age only if the “odds” against her didn’t involve a supportive family and a filthy rich boyfriend.
Oh, the struggles!