As far as romantic epics go, The Notebook is just as by-the-numbers as they come, but the engaging cast and lush surroundings make the retread bearable
Based on the bestseller by Nicolas Sparks, the film begins with Duke (James Garner) and Allie (Gena Rowlands), an inseparable couple living in a nursing home. While Duke remembers their life together, Allie, who suffers from progressive dementia, does not. Their only bond is a faded notebook from which Duke reads to Allie every day, telling her the same story over and over. It's a sweeping tale of two South Carolina teens, country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) and city gal Allie (Rachel McAdams), who spend one glorious summer in the early 1940s falling madly in love. Unfortunately, the couple is soon separated, first by her disapproving parents and then by World War II, but after seven years apart, after taking different paths, they are passionately reunited. There's a catch, though; Allie is now faced to choose between the man she once loved and the successful businessman (James Marsden) she is engaged to. It's really no surprise who the young Allie chooses in the end--but for Duke, the only thing that keeps him going is the fact that every day, somehow through the power of this story, the mentally impaired Allie miraculously remembers their love, if only for a very brief moment, before slipping back into oblivion. Tears being jerked from your eyes yet?
The talented cast certainly elevates The Notebook's romantic drudgery. McAdams takes a departure from all the Mean Girls she's played lately (including The Hot Chick) and easily wins you over as the spirited young Allie, while the usually intense Gosling also tackles something lighter, so to speak, than his previous darker roles, such as his Jewish-turned-American Nazi leader in The Believer. While infusing a certain sense of brooding and melancholy into Noah, especially in the years he spends pining for Allie, Gosling manages to exude Noah's genuine warmth and sensitivity as well. And between the two of them, real sparks fly, as the actors paint a fresh and inviting picture of young love that stands the test of time. Marsden is completely wasted, however, as Allie's fiancé Lon, a upstanding Southern gentleman Allie's parents expect her to marry, who offers little as to why Allie should stay with him. As the older contingency, veterans Garner and Rowlands, who take the sappiest material and turn it into something meaningful, inspire some truly heart-ripping moments as the aging couple, holding onto their love as tight as they can. In the supporting cast, Joan Allen has some shining moments as Allie's uptight mother with a secret of her own.
In bringing the popular novel about enduring love to life, director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars) may have used his own experiences, having seen his parents--the late John Cassavetes and his lady love and muse Gena Rowlands--play out their own real-life love affair. Cassavettes gets to the heart of the material right away and permeates the screen with the beautiful surroundings of South Carolina, where The Notebook was filmed. We glide through lush, moss-filled swamps and sleepy Southern towns, marvel at languid shots of the South Carolina coastline. It's very clear Cassavetes has a way with actors, much like his father did, gently coaxing realistic performances from his young, somewhat untested leads while allowing old guards like Garner and Rowlands to simply work their magic (imagine telling your Oscar-nominated mother how to act. Right). The problem is the story itself, which not only offers nothing new to the romance genre but also isn't very compelling. There are no great tragedies (save, perhaps, for the whole dementia thing), no real villainous presence to keep the lovers apart, no peril at all. It's boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl-back--ho-hum. Where's the sudsy soap opera when you need it?
If not for some inspired moments of breathtaking beauty and heartfelt performances, The Notebook would just be one of those tired love stories that you quickly forget.