The Miley Cyrus-backlash is nothing new, but it gets fresh energy thanks to her flat, bland, boring, and sneering performance as brooding teen prodigy Ronnie in The Last Song. There are quite a few "one-note" puns made about the film, so many, in fact, that I'd like to call a moratorium on crap puns in movie reviews. For those who don't already know the plot, they're playing on both the title and the main character's greatest (and only) skill: Ronnie is a piano player so talented that Julliard let her in without even an audition, but she has given up playing to spite her musician father (Greg Kinnear). Ronnie occasionally shows off her talent on screen, but critics are distracted by the obviously older hands that grace the piano. Cyrus also gets a chance to remind us why she's famous, in a rather contrived moment where she sings along to the car radio for beach volleyball player and hunky love interest Will (played by Liam Hemsworth).
And it's the Will-Ronnie love affair that makes this a typical Sparks story. They face obstacles, someone has a terminal illness, Will has an annoying ex-girlfriend, there is plenty of parental drama, yada yada yada. The two fall in unconvincing love over their mutual desire to save the sea turtles, which is sweet, but ultimately not enough to sustain the film.
There is one bright spot in this sea of mediocre reviews: critics more or less echo the commenter who remarked yesterday that "somebody needs to remind [Greg Kinnear] that he's a great actor." For the most part, he is too good for this movie. The New York Times says "his slyness and subtlety seem wasted in a project that has no interest in either." For someone who is bored to death of Cyrus, and hates Sparks, Kinnear might be the only selling point for the played-out formulaic boredom of The Last Song.
And now, the critics in their own words:
This is what it's come to with modern romance. It's just too easy to communicate these days when it's important. So the crafters of heavy-handed fluff must rely on audiences' goodwill to accept that characters who were willing to go to "Say Anything" lengths for someone just a scene ago, suddenly can't find a name in their contact lists. In "Dear John," Sparks resorted to Sept. 11 and autism as plot points. Here, the scale is smaller but the theatrics are equivalent. Even more than in most specimens of the genre, the characters are die-cast figures whose positions on the board we're not to question, though little justification for their moves together or apart is forthcoming. The acting is similarly an unconnected series of camera-ready smiles and poses. Only Kinnear survives the attrition, sort of.
And it's no spoiler to anyone who's seen a Nicholas Sparks movie that, soon afterward, someone gets sick and eventually dies. Veteran Sparks fans, in fact, will have Kleenex at the ready, seeking out clues: a glimpsed prescription, or that first pre-tubercular cough.
Cyrus's Everygirl charm is honed to a fine point by years as a Disney star, but she's not nearly enough of a natural actress to pull off the emotional whip cracks the story puts Ronnie through.
But the suffering she causes in "The Last Song" is just too much. Cyrus' speaking voice is deep instead of squeaky, which is usually a plus. But this isn't a throaty purr we're talking about; it's more like a three-packs-a-day growl, and it's gratingly unpleasant. Her diction is a slurry mess, and she speaks every line with an implicit sneer, as if everything, even the script of the movie she's starring in, is beneath her consideration. Her expression is perpetually bored and restless, as if the only thing she's got on her mind is getting back to her walk-in closet to assess her vast kingdom of tank tops. This is a performance with all the elegance of a bitten fingernail.
Maybe I'm expecting too much of Cyrus. But "The Last Song" rests heavily on her alleged appeal, and I can't remember the last time I came across such a singularly charmless teenage performer. I hesitate to even use the word "actress," because what Cyrus projects here is an unvarnished haughtiness that's wholly disconnected from the troubled-but-feisty character she's supposed to be playing. Even as poor pops Kinnear suffers nobly for the camera, Cyrus barrels through the movie as if she were the only person in it. She's all ego and no alter, although we should probably be grateful we're not dealing with a split personality here. Please, one is enough.
Cyrus plays Ronnie, a high school grad spending summer in Tybee Island, Ga., with her musician-father (Greg Kinnear).
She's still smarting from her parents' divorce and nursing a major attitude. This means ignoring her acceptance to Juilliard, and befriending kids who spend all night partying under the boardwalk. (She herself declines - Disney still has an icon to protect, after all.)
Her anger softens a bit when she meets Will (Liam Hemsworth), a pretty boy with unexpected depth. They bond, they break up, and somebody develops an ominous Movie Cough that brings everything into perspective.
Sparks himself collaborated on the very moist screenplay, whose occasionally hilarious excesses are underlined by Julie Anne Robinson's ham-fisted direction and Aaron Zigman's schmaltzy score, even though they are already IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS WITH EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!
In ritualizing death, Sparks, whose formula of beaches and bad news runs aground here, crosses over into bathetic profanity. His characters die because it's all he can think to have them do. This is the sort of petty, recriminating movie that has to punish its characters' bad attitudes by making them sit at bedsides or cater at fancy weddings. (One girl, on the verge of homelessness, could buy herself a month of shelter simply by putting her $500 sandals on eBay.)
A more convincing star could make this a degree more tolerable, although in Cyrus's defense not much more. She's cute whether she's smiling, crying, or wearing a pretty lavender dress. It'd be nice to see her do some acting, but that doesn't appear to be high on the movie's list of priorities. Allegedly, this is the film in which Cyrus gets all, like, dramatic. If by "dramatic'' one means pouty, sullen, and cute, then OK. But it's not tragedy you sense behind those big brown eyes. It's a party in the USA.
To watch "The Last Song" is to feel a little sorry for Nicholas Sparks. If he's like almost every other writer, he didn't write the screenplay as a cynical exercise, but in the hope of doing something worthwhile. And then that hope imploded with the performance of Miley Cyrus, who makes her debut here as the star of a dramatic feature.
Of course, Cyrus made sense from a box office perspective - that's the horror, the devil's bargain of it all. But at any point in the process, as the agents were being contacted and the offers being made, did anybody have her do a screen test? And if she did one, did anyone take the dollar signs away from their eyes long enough to actually see it? Because the bottom line here is that Cyrus is ghastly in "The Last Song," bad not just in one or two ways, but in all kinds of ways. It was a disservice to the audience, to the material and to Cyrus herself that she was put in this position.
The overbearing sentimentality is leavened by Kinnear's grounded performance. Whether in a comedy (Little Miss Sunshine) or drama (Auto Focus), Kinnear lends intelligence and believability to his roles. When the story revolves around the romance, it's mostly predictable beach montages and goofy antics. But things improve when gears shift to probe Kinnear's character. His affability invests the sappy tale with some authenticity.
Cyrus is more problematic. It's an awkward age for any actress, but she tries too obviously. Her attempts to be hard-edged and troubled just come off as bratty; coupled with her chipmunky appeal (and scratchy, untrained speaking voice), it's the worst of both worlds.
And it doesn't help that her on-screen (and apparently, off-screen) boyfriend is the lunky, Channing Tatum-Lite actor Liam Hemsworth. Or that their courting consists of him dousing her in milkshakes, or mud, or dropping her in giant aquariums, or hosing her off in the backyard. Get a room? More like get a towel.
As Ronnie, Cyrus is two-note: Petulant or tentatively hopeful. Despite (or because of) years of TV training, Cyrus lacks emotional range. She moves with self-consciousness, as though acutely aware of the camera. Still, her moods are relatable - especially when Ronnie dedicates herself to protecting a nest of turtle eggs and Will sees turtle duty as a way to get close to her.
The early sequences of the film seem rushed, introducing the audience to a number of characters who are significant to the subplots but fairly disposable and one-dimensional in the main story line. The three parallel love stories of daughter and dad, girlfriend and boyfriend, sister and brother, are nicely handled. Robinson is a sympathetic director of actors, allowing almost everyone their dignity. For the most part, she keeps this emotionally charged story in the schmaltz-free zone.