Life's a Beach

There's plenty of Sparks in The Last Song, but it still sucks

The Last Song represents a collision between two of the more synthetic entities in American popular culture: Nicholas Sparks novels and Disney's Hannah Montana franchise star Miley Cyrus. It's hard to say which is worse: Sparks' predictably sappy, emotionally manipulative writing or the flat, charmless pout that passes for Cyrus' acting.

Sparks' sentimental formula is well known by now, and at this point in his successful career, he merely rearranges the elements in increasingly random ways. The Windswept Beachfront House. The Regrettable Divorce. The Lovers From Different Worlds. A Packet of Unread Letters. An Amazing Act of Self-Sacrifice. A Lingering but Impossibly Beautiful Death by Cancer. If The Last Song seems even more slipshod than previous Sparks adaptations, it may be because it was commissioned expressly as a star vehicle for Cyrus, and then turned into a "novelization." Co-written by Jeff Van Wie and directed by Julie Anne Robinson, the movie is so unfocused it makes this year's other Sparks adaptation, Dear John, look like Shakespeare.

The story is about a rebellious New York teen named Ronnie (Cyrus) whose mom (Kelly Preston) brings her and her weepy little brother (Bobby Coleman) to their father's (Greg Kinnear) his Windswept Beachfront House in Tybee Island, Georgia for the summer. Dad has little to do but tinker at making a stained-glass window for a church that burned down under suspicious circumstances. Under Dad's tutelage, Ronnie was a piano prodigy at age five, but since the Regrettable Divorce, she hasn't played a note. Nonetheless, she has been accepted into Juilliard without even having to audition.

Dressed in black and wearing combat boots on the beach, sullen Ronnie meets Will (real-life boyfriend Liam Hemsworth), a handsome, WASP-y volleyball player who takes an inexplicable shine to her, to the chagrin of his rich, uptight mom. Will volunteers at the aquarium, where he takes Ronnie swimming in the fish tanks. Through Will's transformative love, Ronnie opens her heart, rescues some baby sea turtles, plays some bad new-age piano music, wears a frilly dress to Will's sister's fancy wedding and grows closer to her dad, just in time for ... well, I won't spoil the rest for you.

Usually there's some redeeming quality in a Sparks movie — nice coastal scenery, Lasse Hallström's excellent direction in Dear John. In this case, it's Greg Kinnear, who brings a pleasant sincerity to the part of the father. It takes real acting skill to be able to recite with conviction pseudo-profound Sparksian bromides like, "Love is fragile, and we're not always its best caretakers." The movie may raise lumps in the throat among those susceptible, but its appeal is probably limited to young Miley Cyrus fans and diehard devotees of Nicholas Sparks.

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