RATING |

On two occasions during the latest Nicholas Sparks film The Best of Me, I caught myself on the verge of tears.

Both times I kicked myself for almost being suckered into the mushy miasma of romantic treacle that constitutes the average Sparks story.

Of course, most fans would object.

And they are legion. The North Carolina author's first 16 novels have sold 90 million copies in more than 50 languages. His first eight films have grossed $767.3 million worldwide.

Plenty of viewers at an advance screening happily let themselves be washed up by the grandiose sentiment that distinguishes Sparks as the postmodern poet of the bourgeois heart.

The ninth Sparks novel to be adapted for film (production already has been scheduled for three more), The Best of Me is neither worse than his other films nor particularly better.

At 118 minutes, it is, however, one of the longest. Interminably long, dragging out its molasses heart through what seem like three different endings.

James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan star as Dawson Cole and Amanda Collie, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet - sans the double suicide - who fall in love as teens, are torn apart by an ugly twist of fate, and are reunited after 21 years, only to discover their ardor has increased and deepened with time.

At the top of the film, a lawyer calls each lover to tell them of the death of their most trusted mutual friend, Tuck (Gerald McRaney). A widower well in his late 50s when the two lovebirds first meet, Tuck had helped their relationship blossom. After death, he calls them back to their idyllic small Southern hometown for the reading of his will.

Together again after a lifetime, they reconnect briefly as lovers. Yet, it seems sexual love isn't enough for Sparks. He contrives a plot twist that transforms the couple's relationship into a redemptive force. Love's fireworks give way to a flood of transfiguring light, like those luminous fingers of the divine in William Blake's engravings.

Directed by the talented Michael Hoffman (Gambit, The Last Station), The Best of Me then transports us to 1990, when young Dawson (Luke Bracey) and Amanda (Liana Liberato) meet and fall in love. Bracey is solid - and buff - if not awfully memorable as Dawson, an abused kid from a (self-described) white-trash clan of drug dealers and thieves. The radiant, arresting Liberato makes quite an impression as young Amanda, a rich girl whose father tries to buy Dawson off so his girl can marry a blue blood.

Like Sparks' entire oeuvre, The Best of Me is built on a quasi-religious tissue of cosmic wishful thinking - that the universe is ruled by a benevolent power and that true love is a transcendent force carrying one to some grand destiny.

We should be wary of falling victim to Sparks' magical spell. His stories are opiates, hazy dreams about impossible people, impossible sentiments, and an impossible world where everything happens for a reason and romantic love takes us to a deeper meaning, a more meaning-er meaning, to Meaning-with-a-capital-M.

The Best of Me *1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Michael Hoffman. With James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, and Gerald McRaney. Distributed by Relativity Media.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sexuality, violence, drugs, some profanity).

Playing at: area theaters.

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