Dawson (James Marsden) and Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) were young lovers twenty years ago, but unknown circumstances parted them, and now they live separate, unhappy lives. He leads a solitary existence, working on an oil rig and reading Stephen Hawking on his lunch breaks (the first sign of a dumb movie). She is married to a man hilariously named Frank Reynolds (Sebastian Arcelus), who drinks a bit too much and is obsessed by his work in “finance.” We see flashbacks from a happier time: 1992, to be specific. Then, Dawson and Amanda (Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato) were high schoolers in small town Louisiana, whiling away their days sitting on benches and hanging out on water towers. I guess they only saw each other during the magic hour, because that’s the only time we see them together. She comes from money and he’s from the wrong side of the tracks, which is evinced by the presence of guns, booze, and hookers at his home. Can’t a guy study his physics book in peace?

Listen: I’m down for schmaltzy romance. I enjoyed The Vow, About Time, and most importantly, The Notebook, which I watched all by myself. The fact that all of those star Rachel McAdams is not lost on me. But there is a certain amount of energy that needs to come with the movie in order for it to work, and that is only one of the many, many things that The Best of Me lacks. This movie comes out of the same mush factory as The Notebook, that of the omnipotent Nicholas Sparks, who, tellingly, receives production credit here. To call it by-the-numbers is an insult to numbers.

Central to this film’s problems is the absence of chemistry between the two leads, at least when they’re grown up. Monaghan, brilliant in True Detective, is absolutely slumming it, and she has no chemistry with Marsden, who never met a role he couldn’t flatten to oblivion. Even worse, their younger counterparts provide the only bright spot in the film, as they work remarkably well together. Liberato is particularly good, giving a verve to her character that was presumably sanded over by the disappointments of life, if Monaghan’s performance is any indication.

The actors are woefully underserved by the screenplay, which fails at both a story and script level. The film succeeds most when it allows the film to slow down and let the characters revel in their supposedly rapturous love together. But most of the time, this sort of relationship development is relegated to montage, which is punctuated by treacly piano tinkling and plenty of nuzzling. Why do these characters love each other so much? We’ll never know. The Sparks machine simply demands that it is so. Also, this movie is also quite talky, which yields the most embarrassing moments for the actors. The dialogic pain ranges from the merely bland “You just don’t get it, do you?” to the agony of “You want me to fall back in love with you? How can I do that if I’ve never stopped?”. 

Let’s hope that director Michael Hoffman does not fall prey to the Sparks machine. It has already ensnared erstwhile interesting filmmaker Lasse Hallström, who has made the last two Sparks films, Safe Haven and Dear John. Hoffman previously directed The Last Station, which somehow made watching the sexual dynamics between the ailing Leo Tolstoy and his wife very funny and dramatically engaging. In this film, however, his influence has all but disappeared, leaving a workmanlike result that is more fitting for the Hallmark channel than theaters. An episode of Gilmore Girls is more formally daring than The Best of Me

I will not spoil the details here, but like Safe Haven, which Dave White and Alonso Duralde hilariously refer to as “Ghost Wife,” the third act of this film spirals into lunacy by way of ridiculous coincidence and misplaced violence. The coda to the film is particularly ludicrous, despite the fact that you will see it coming from a mile away. Somehow, we’re supposed to find closure and comfort in this last-minute revelation. As I wrote in my notebook at the end of the movie: “Nothin’. I’ve got nothin.’”