If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's not just a motto to author Nicholas Sparks, but the very key to his vast literary fortune. The architect of North Carolina soap operas, Sparks launches another granny shot with "The Last Song," an absurdly formulaic tearjerker based around the aging appeal of star Miley Cyrus. It's a fascinating attempt for the former Hannah Montana to edge away from her clownish Disney ways, but even Meryl Streep would be hard-pressed to make something stimulating out of Sparks's paint-by-numbers storytelling effort.
Sent to live with her estranged father Steve (Greg Kinnear) for the summer, Ronnie (Miley Cyrus) isn't pleased with the situation, while kid brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) is overjoyed. Resentful about the way her father destroyed their family, Ronnie has lost interest in life and her extraordinary musical gifts, taking to the beach in a sullen fog. When Ronnie meets Will (Liam Hemsworth), her whole life changes, allowing the handsome young man into her ailing heart, embarking on a summer romance that withstands bouts of hateful gossip and disapproving parents. While all seems well, the summer slowly draws to a close, leaving the lovers at a crossroads, with further pressure emerging from a tragic event that will change Ronnie forever.
Yes, tragedy. To Nicholas Sparks, tragedy is mother's milk, helping the writer to arrange identical stories varied only by degrees of hysteria. With "The Notebook," "Nights in Rodanthe," "Message in a Bottle," "A Walk to Remember," and the recent "Dear John," Sparks has hit pay dirt, and it's hard to blame the guy for essentially recycling the same elements of romance and doomsday to make millions from readers all over the world. However, his cinematic appeal hits a bumpy road with "Last Song," which, oddly enough, represents the first time Sparks has ever attempted to script one of his own novels (eventually sharing a credit with Jeff Van Wie).
It's a shame "Last Song" is such a repetitive stiff, as it boasts two pleasing lead performances from Cyrus and Hemsworth, who share benevolent chemistry as the virginal couple. Inching away from her sunny day personality as Queen Montana, Cyrus attempts some darker colors as Ronnie that go beyond heavy eye makeup and combat boots (the rebellious teen uniform). It's not a complete 180-degree-turn from her established persona, but the prickly, nostril-bejeweled effort helps to ingest the bland story and the creative panic emanating from television director Julie Anne Robinson, who always has a music montage loaded and holstered just in case she can't figure her way out of a scene. Cyrus still has much to learn about restraint, but she's an interesting foundation to "Last Song," matched well by Hemsworth and his unthreatening everyguy appeal.
In fact, "Last Song" is positively held together by the duo (Kinnear has a few gentle moments as daddy deserter), as the rest of the cast leaves much to be desired. Young Bobby Coleman is particularly aggressive as the bright-eyed, camera-aware little brother, offering migraines with every last attempt to express earnestness, practically popping when the gang helps to hatch a swarm of baby loggerhead turtles. Nick Lashaway is equally as unappealing, here as a possibly mentally challenged thug named Marcus who keeps invading Ronnie's personal space. The character appears to have some elevated meaning to the story, but Robinson only includes baffling flashes of the actor, which is more than enough.
As previously mentioned, matters sour for Ronnie and her dreamy summer, dragging the third act down into a desperate bid for tears. It's manipulative, but that's Sparks, and frankly, the man has made more noteworthy plays for sniffles during his career. I found the last-minute dash for emotional devastation cloying and unearned, asking too much of the actors and severing the snappy pace of the story.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) has it pretty easy if you ask me, covering a range of beautiful people and striking locations. The visual quality is excellent, with a tremendous push of blues and reds to bring the Tybee Island, GA beach scenes to life (the water looks good enough to dive into), while interiors offer superb detail, allowing the viewer to survey the set detail when the melodrama burns too hot. Facial textures are always expressive and appealing, blessed with appropriate skintones that encourage the glow. Shadow detail is crisp, permitting a nice read of fabrics and nighttime adventures.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound experience is comfortable, with only a few soundtrack moments registering as a touch aggressive, trying to slam home the healing power of the music. Dialogue exchanges are suitably motivated and clean, with scoring cues never intruding, falling nicely into the flow of the film. Environments fill the surrounds, presenting some directional moment with waves and carnivals -- crowd dynamics and beach business are nicely maintained. A solid low-end anchor is provided, but most of the mix feels light and approachable, staying true to the family demographic the feature aims to please. A 5.1 French track is also available.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Julie Anne Robinson and co-producer Jennifer Gibgot is a chatty event, with the two women bouncing off each other more like friends than hardened filmmaking professionals. It's not a complaint, but there's a certain air of fluff that robs the track of honest reflection. Robinson does an admirable job pointing out the technical nuances of the shoot and the use of a Cyrus double to cover when the film ran over time. It's a congratulatory discussion, but there's plenty of information imparted here that's worth a listen, with the duo even addressing the burgeoning romance between Cyrus and Hemsworth.
"Alternate Opening Sequence: The Church Fire" (2:55) elongates the introductory inferno, providing a more tragic entryway into the film. It can be viewed with or without commentary from director Julie Anne Robinson
"Deleted Scenes" (7:09) basically restore Greg Kinnear to the picture, offering several moments ultimately cut from the film to streamline the story. Kinnear fans, this is the moment you've been waiting for. Also included is an absurd extension of the "fire juggling" scene. They can be viewed with or without commentary from director Julie Anne Robinson.
"Set Tour with Bobby Coleman" (5:06) follows the young star around the island location as he interviews key production personnel and lounges around the beach.
"When I Look at You" music video (4:16) and "Making of the Music Video" (4:20) covers the creation of the film's theme song, with Miss Miley herself describing how the song came to be and how the video, directed by Adam Shankman, was shot.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
As a PG, Disney-produced soap opera, "The Last Song" retains an affable presence when keeping close to the natural glow of the stars. Anything more labored than stolen kisses, paternal resentment, and gorgeous beachside cinematography grinds the whole endeavor to a disappointing halt.