March 31 2010 12:00 AM

Miley Cyrus: Still a girl, not yet an actress in her dramatic debut 'The Last Song'


Miley.jpgMiley Cyrus fans, don’t say you weren’t warned.

Remember how “The Hannah Montana Movie” took a serious turn
in the last half-hour, with Miley suffering an identity crisis? Consider that a
warm-up for “The Last Song,” in which Cyrus tackles her first straight dramatic
role. Despite the title, she does very little singing in the film (aside from a
scene in which she belts out Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved” along with the
radio); she also doesn’t do much in the way of persuasive emoting, either.

Instead, “Song” demonstrates that, at least at this point in
her career, Cyrus won’t be giving Dakota Fanning many sleepless nights: Cyrus
is still more of a personality than she is an actress. She can deliver dialogue
and generate reactions and she’s got a natural sweetness that works nicely for
her in the quieter moments. On the other hand, anger and obstinacy do not come
easily to her — she expresses her character’s rage by yelling, in the politest
way possible — and that’s a definite stumbling block in a story in which
resentment and recriminations are central to the plot.

Author Nicholas Sparks crafted “Song” with Cyrus in mind; a
generous gesture to be sure, even if it’s sort of like getting a sweater from
Uncle Bill that’s three sizes too big. Cyrus plays Ronnie, a troubled New
Yorker who’s sent to live with her estranged father (Greg Kinnear) on the
Georgia coast. Once a wunderkind at the piano, Ronnie has since become a
perpetually cranky teen (and convicted shoplifter) whose mostly black wardrobe
mirrors her mood.

“Song” incorporates most of the requisite Sparks
ingredients: broken family ties, medical problems, romance, the healing power
of the beach, etc. Ronnie is pursued by Will (Liam Hemsworth, blessed with the
most assertive eyebrows since Luke Perry), who is not only the hunkiest
volleyball player on the sand, but also a devoted volunteer at the local
aquarium, a mechanic and — bonus! — the local answer to Richie Rich. That means
Ronnie gets a taste of Southern-fried snobbery, courtesy of Will’s haughty mom,
in a “Pretty Woman”-ish subplot.

Taken for what it is — a soap opera for the spring-break set
— “Song” will probably please Cyrus’ many admirers, even if they roll their
eyes at some of the metaphors (Ronnie, whose own family structure is shattered,
tries to save a nest of baby sea turtles) or spot its “surprise” plot twist in
the first 10 minutes. Kinnear’s wry humor and understatement help to offset
Cyrus’ flatness, although even he can’t nullify the overbearing cutesiness of
Bobby Coleman as Ronnie’s painfully precocious little brother.

But although “Song” piles on the crises, it’s not much of a
tearjerker. Sparks’ busy, pointlessly complicated story is a compendium of
stock situations and two-dimensional characters. He seems to be running through
a checklist of chick-flick clichés (the big shopping scene, domestic abuse,
terrible revelations, etc.) and director Julie Ann Robinson doesn’t do much
more than try to connect the various dots, while offering numerous glamour
shots of the always perfectly styled Cyrus.

In recent interviews, Cyrus has declared she’s
going to put music on hold for a while to concentrate on honing her dramatic
skills. If that's true,
she might want to follow in the footsteps of Cher, another singer-turned-movie
star: Walk away from the makeup table and head to New York for some hard-core
acting classes and stage training.

it's not as much fun as having a best-selling author whip up a vehicle for you,
but it's far more beneficial in the long run, especially if you're truly serious
about winning over the skeptics instead of merely preaching to the converted.