'The Last Song': Is the weeper a keeper?
By Dan Kois
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
"The Last Song," starring teen pop star Miley Cyrus, is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, which means that its title might as well be "There Will Be Tears."
Just like "The Notebook," "Message in a Bottle" and every other Sparks adaptation, "The Last Song" hews closely enough to the Sparks pattern of romance and bathos that tears will flow as copiously in the audience as they do on screen. But can "The Last Song" succeed in its other, less obvious objective: to make a viable grown-up movie actress out of Cyrus, the star of Disney's "Hannah Montana" franchise? That's less clear.
In "The Last Song," Cyrus tries on some emo-inspired black outfits, a nose stud and a bad attitude as she not-quite-convincingly plays troubled high school senior Ronnie Miller. Fresh from a shoplifting arrest at home in New York, Ronnie is shipped off, along with little brother Jonah, to their father's beach house in some alternative version of Georgia where no one has a Southern accent. You may not think summer at the beach sounds like much of a punishment, but Ronnie - a piano prodigy who hasn't played since her parents broke up - sure does, and she spends the movie's first half-hour yelling at her dad (Greg Kinnear) and staring out at the sea.
Salvation comes, of course, in the form of a boy - in this case, hunky Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth). We know he's perfect for her because he quotes Tolstoy, because he's rich and hot, and because he's just damaged enough to trigger Ronnie's rescue impulses. The summer romance moves so fast that a mere two scenes after a swoony first kiss at sunset, Will is writing "FOREVER" on Ronnie's Chuck Taylors.
And it's no spoiler to anyone who has seen a Sparks movie that, soon afterward, someone gets sick and eventually dies.
It's not hard to make a sad, satisfying movie out of the ingredients assembled here: final hugs, brave smiles, crying kids and piano tributes. But it is hard to make a good one, and "The Last Song," in the end, isn't very good, despite nice performances from Kinnear and Bobby Coleman, who plays Jonah with a welcome absence of smart-alecky kid-brother shenanigans.
First-time film director Julie Anne Robinson can't get much out of the slack screenplay (written by Sparks and Jeff Van Wie) and mostly lets the soundtrack's never-ending acoustic guitar do the emotional heavy lifting. Cyrus is game and appealing, but she's not nearly enough of a natural actress to pull off the emotional whip-cracks the story puts Ronnie through.
Will "The Last Song" resonate with a certain generation of young women the way, say, "The Notebook" has? I'm not sure. The audience I saw it with responded with as many giggles as sniffles and, after the screening, two women in their early 30s chatted happily in the elevator, seemingly unaffected by "The Last Song's" tragic end. Then one of them brought up "The Notebook." Before we got to the parking deck, they had both dissolved into tears.
Kois is a freelance reviewer.
PG. At area theaters. Contains mild violence, horizontal kissing and disrespectful teenagers saying mean things.