'Best of Me' (PG-13)

For an hour or so, Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden gamely swim against the current, fighting the torpid tide of tripe that romance novelist Nicholas Sparks sends their way in his latest.

It’s sad to watch them strain and struggle and then give up as the lachrymose The Best of Me drowns them in a sea of saccharine.

It’s yet another doomed last chance love story set in the coastal South, star-crossed lovers “destined” to be together, but kept apart by tragedy. There’s barely a tear left in this limp weeper.

Dawson (Marsden) once loved Amanda (Monaghan). They were high school sweethearts — the pushy, spunky rich girl, the book-smart “white trash” bayou rat from a family of dentally deficient lowlifes.

But circumstances broke them apart, and when we meet him he’s on an oil rig in the Gulf, a rig that has a blowout that hurls him into the sea. When he wakes up, he’s summoned to the reading of a will. She’s been summoned, too.

Can love’s flame rekindle after 20 years?

“Twenty-one, actually.”

Can she ignore the hurt he caused and leave the family she started? Can he come off as noble as he hopes against hope to bust up that family? What do you think?

Gerald McRaney plays a mildly-amusing old cuss who took Dawson in when he was a teen. It’s his will they read. Through flashbacks, the old man’s narration and heartfelt hand-written letters, we learn their past, as performed by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, who don’t look much at all like the adults they’re supposed to be and don’t heat this story up.

Back then, she was all “You don’t know how to flirt, do ya?” And he was all “Destiny is a name the fortunate give to their fortunes.”

And his redneck daddy (Sean Bridgers) is all, “You think you’re too good for this family?”

The boy studies physics, sitting on the catwalk of the rusty town water tower in their little Louisiana town. So yeah, he is.

Director Michael Hoffman (One Fine Day) was probably never up to the task of polishing this floater.

But the adults are interesting to watch, and Monaghan comes close to breaking our heart, once or twice — a little catch in her voice, a tear. At some point, the spark goes out of her performance and she joins Marsden as a sort of bystander in a movie their efforts alone won’t save.

There’s an artless obviousness to Sparks — the choice of tune they pick as “their song,” the tasteful PG-13 sex scenes, the righteous rural way of settling scores. None of which isn’t helped by the fact that The Best of Me is just Sparks’ greatest hits, starting with The Notebook, a touch of Dear John, and running through every “not good enough for my daughter,” every tragic death, broken memory or noble sacrifice.

Which is why The Best of Me plays like the worst of Nicholas Sparks.

Cast: Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Gerald McRaney, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Sean Bridgers.

Director: Michael Hoffman.

Screenwriter: J. Mills Goodloe, Will Fetters, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks.

A Relativity release. Running time: 113 minutes. Sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language. Playing at area theaters.

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