The Last Song is a terrible movie. Should this be surprising? No: Miley Cyrus + Nicholas Sparks + the autocratic hand of the Walt Disney Company. But am I surprised? I don't know. Maybe. A little. Stunned is a better word, perhaps; like taking a frisbee to the back of the head and it's shocking and painful and you're not quite certain whether you're going to crumple up or keep walking and for a minute you just stand there and everything seems wrong, inside your body and in the whole world, too, just for a split-second. Pull and stretch and tug, and make that split-second 107 minutes long. That is The Last Song.
Making it even less of a surprise: The Last Song wasn't some horrible accident of history. It came about because Disney, looking to transition Cyrus from Hannah Montana teenybopper to accomplished young actress of note (still waiting...), called up Sparks one day and asked him to make a vehicle for her. This he did, even going so far as to let Cyrus name her character (Veronica "Ronnie" Miller), and co-writing the screenplay with Jeff Van Wie as he also wrote the novel alongside it; the screenplay was completed first, while the book was published before the movie's premiere. This is especially unfortunate because it makes it virtually impossible to avoid directly comparing The Last Song with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came about in almost exactly the same way. Spoiler alert: 2001 is better.
Thus we have a made-to-order vanity project as written and conceived by a man of rather mercenary talents at best, starring a young woman whose skills as an actor are no match for the bloodlust with which a massive entertainment corporation enjoys using her as a meat puppet. Is it any wonder that The Last Song should end up being so atrocious, readily the worst of all Nicholas Sparks adaptations and indeed a strong candidate for being one of the worst mainstream American movies of 2010? I say thee nay, again; it is not a surprise. But I still wasn't prepped for it, and I'm still kind of reeling. Enough of that, however, let me try to dig into the thing as far as I dare.
The book, to begin with, was outlandishly square, and functioned very much like a semi-conscious parody of Cyrus's stringently clean-cut persona: Ronnie is a combination of prickly edges and beatific innocence that presumably could actually exist in the real world - there are many millions of 17-year-old females in the United States - but still plays exactly like a fabrication made up by a middle-aged white dude with a fetish for "nice", throwing himself into the challenge of making a sullen, dark figure who could still be a heroine in the stranglingly narrow limits of SparksWorld morality, where any teenager who drinks, or smokes, or kisses with her mouth open, can at best be redeemed as a former sinner; she cannot be one of the paragons of humility and decency that the author favors in his women (though at least his middle-aged characters get to have some vigorously gentle premarital boning, typically for One Perfect Night; but not poor Ronnie, even if she is a legal and emotional adult at the end of the narrative). So Ronnie is some kind of psychotic amalgam of what might have passed for "the bad kid" back in 1962 with the the mores and edginess of 2009, almost like Sparks looked at the inane mash-up for the 1950s and 1990s in the woebegone film version of A Walk to Remember, and thought it looked absolutely great, and he should do one of his own just like it. It's also tailor-made for Cyrus as Disney would like us to think of her: saucy and grown-up and cool, but faithful and familial and delieriously pre-sexual. And at the same time, this is all so divorced from anything that real-life people, teenagers especially, might legitimately think, feel, and say, that it serves mostly to make the Cyrusbot Persona seem even more artificial and unconvincing than it was in the first place.
That's true of the book, anyway, and a bit less so of the movie; the book has a kind of demented madness about it that carried that attitude all the way to the last chapter, which is unfortunately not altogether true of the film. I find it interesting to note in passing that as the first Sparks film he himself wrote, it would stand to reason that The Last Song would be generally the same in both of its iterations, unlike the previous Sparks adaptations, and this is mainly true; the overlong book does of course stuff in more detail and subplots, but the movie plays as a very crisp, direct, and self-sufficient version of the story. What surprised me that even when Sparks wrote the movie, the ambitious, foggy, Catholic-cum-Baptist religious focus present in all of his books somewhat, and in The Last Song to a particularly degree, still managed to be buffed out to the point of invisibility, which is a damn shame: Sparks's blissed-out, dogmatically insubstantial "Whee, I'm a Christian!" bromides fit in so nicely with the ones that Cyrus herself sometimes remembered to say in public.
Anyway. Bad-ish Girl Ronnie Miller - she has a tiny nose ring, y'all, for totes serious - she arrives in Georgia one day (no, not North Carolina, because apparently Sparks's own artistic credibility is cheaper than tax credits), driven by her mom Kim (Kelly Preston), alongside her 10-year-old brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman), there to visit with their long-absent father Steve (Greg Kinnear) for the whole summer. The important bits to know are that Steve used to be a piano teacher, and then he went touring and it didn't pan out, and then he and Kim split up; Ronnie used to play piano and was a major prodigy (soloing at Carnegie Hall at 7 years of age), but as her vitriolic hate for Steve grew, her interest in playing dried up, and now she just uses hating piano as a weapon to attack her dad. Because she hates the shit out of her dad, y'see. For she is Brooding and Hurt.
The inevitable re-connection of father and daughter gets left to simmer for most of the movie, in favor of Ronnie's slow infatuation with local rich boy (that's another amazing thing about the book: it's crazy sympathetic to the rich) and volleyball champ Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth). As she slowly learns to open up to another person, she becomes not such a hopeless misanthrope, and everybody celebrates except for her dad, who's too dying of cancer to celebrate. Which was perhaps a spoiler, but it was literally the only thing I knew about the movie or book as of a week ago, so I think it probably doesn't deserve to be. Kinnear, incidentally, looks like absolute shit in his cancer make-up, which is the one way the movie attempts to make it not completely offensive that it's pulling that hoary old stunt in such a ridiculously simplistic way - until he passes out on the beach and reveals his secret sickness, Steve hardly registers as a legitimate character, making one wonder why a Kinnear-sized actor would have taken such a limited part. Taa-daa! Heart-wrenching death scene! To be fair, Kinnear does as much as he can to save the movie, which means in practice not that he sells the character, but that he never bursts out laughing at Cyrus.
So far, so boilerplate, though the ham-handed application of cancer would be enough to get me on the film's bad side; what shoves The Last Song into the realm of really outlandishly terrible cinema is partially director Julie Anne Robinson, whose management of tone is incredibly disproportionate to what's actually going on (one shot of a raccoon is shot and scored with as much "holy shit no, not a raccoon!" tension and dramatic impact as all the vistas of all the Orc armies in the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy), and there absolutely came a moment when I started giggling and never quite managed to stop. But mostly, it's Cyrus and Hemsworth, who represent some kind of theoretical low for how terrible two romantic leads can be, together and separately. It's really quite amazing, in fact, how much chemistry they do not have; and impressive, in its way, how broken their performances both are: Hemsworth, with his eyebrows on loan from Billy Zane in Titanic, does not demonstrate an interest in any mode of performance other than smoldering (sometimes happily, sometimes dramatically) and posing in ways that accentuate his muscles best; he gets one absolutely terrific line reading in response to Kinnear, but otherwise it really comes across as just straight-up whorish. And Cyrus- OH, MILEY CYRUS!- My word, I could have spent this long and written about nothing at all but her performance in all the facets of its badness. She's so wildly bad as to single-handedly make The Last Song a good bad movie and not just a bad one, though she's also the single biggest reason that it's bad and not mediocre. So hard to call whether she's a net benefit or not.
But heavens, it's a sight to see. She starts out playing "Angry Transplanted New Yorker Ronnie" with a curious nasal flatness to her voice, that when combined with the strange thing she does to her mouth throughout the movie - flaring her lips, to make her teeth look really prominent, and to not at all make her mouth look sumptuous and seductive and inviting, which I imagine was the point - I swear to God, it plays exactly like she's doing a Jerry Lewis impersonation. And you know what, watching a teenage girl making bedroom eyes at a painfully model-bland Australian boy while talking like Jerry Lewis, is kind of the best thing ever. Eventually, she dials it down (alas), and favors a single attitude, that I am 100% certain was described as "upbeat", or "chipper" or "positive" on the set, but comes off as hugely insincere and sarcastic, and also tends to leave her with inflexible line deliveries that are underarticulate and over-enunciated, if that's even possible. Did you see Revenge of the Sith? Remember "Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo?" Imagine an entire feature-length performance of that line delivery. It's pretty spectacular, by which I mean that it is objectively and entirely a spectacle. A nightmare spectacle of flailing incompetence that does not begin to recognise its own limitations, but a spectacle; the kind that, once seen, is not easily forgotten.