Can a small town's handsome, generically troubled high school bad boy be reformed by the soft-focus love of a plain, virginal minister's daughter? Will finding out that the girl, despite showing no symptoms whatsoever, is dying from Leukemia change the way he feels about her? Will over-scripted, highly telegraphed, mushy and grand romantic gestures follow? Will he be inspired to reach for his dreams because of her?
If you can answer these questions without being spoon-fed 102 minutes of cheaply cloying, saccharine yet flavorless syrup, then congratulations -- you've just saved yourself the price of admission to the trite, two-hanky teen romance "A Walk to Remember."
Adapted from a novel by sap-master Nicholas Sparks ("Message in a Bottle") and directed by the desperately uncreative Adam Shankman ("The Wedding Planner"), this is a movie that launches soggy spitballs of sentimentality in nearly every scene as in-crowd malcontent Landon (the blasé and insincere Shane West) falls for candied outcast Jamie (pop princess Mandy Moore), in spite of her mousy brown hair and burlap sack wardrobe (it's hard to make Mandy Moore look dowdy).
As punishment for getting another kid hospitalized in a hazing incident, Landon is forced to be in the school play (as if they'd have him). Inexplicably cast as the lead the second he walks in, late and surly, to the first cast meeting, he rehearses opposite Jamie until he falls in love with her innocence, purity and unashamed, unadorned individuality.
His cool friends soon diss him (after which the narrative never sets foot in the school again) and Jamie's Bible-thumping but altruistic father (Peter Coyote) treats him with justified suspicion. But while Landon stays true through a tidal wave of maudlin romantic clichés and truly awful dialogue ("This girl's changed you and you don't even know it, man!"), "A Walk to Remember" lacks a single moment of emotional sincerity or even a hint of chemistry between its leads.
Shankman's jarringly uneven direction gives the impression he hasn't the patience for transitioning between episodes of ham-fisted heartstring manipulation. The movie has a Point A, a Point B and a Point C, but the director just jumps from one to the other without any story development in between. This is especially true of any scene concerning Jamie's cancer -- an off-the-shelf melodramatic plot device if there ever was one -- or Landon's romantic gestures designed to demonstrate his dreamy nice-guy transformation.
The only element of "A Walk to Remember" that saves it from being 100-percent pure popcorn poppycock is the surprising breadth and veracity of Mandy Moore's performance. Without appearing to try too hard, she completely sells Jamie's willful naivete and emblematic religious devotion. Her reaching out to Landon isn't the least bit contrived, nor is her determination to find the good in him, even turning the other cheek when he belittles her in front of his buddies in the early stages of their friendship (a la John Travolta in "Grease").
One thing the girl can't seem to do right, however, is lip sync to her own music. The school play is, of course, a musical for which Jamie wrote the songs, affording Moore the opportunity to doll herself up a bit and belt out a couple tunes without breaking character. But just like her performance of Connie Francis' "Stupid Cupid" in "The Princess Diaries" last year, Moore's singing is conspicuously, distractingly pre-recorded.