The Notebook

(2004) ** Pg-13
121 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Nick Cassavetes. Cast: James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, Joan Allen.

The Notebook, based on Nicholas Sparks's best-selling novel, is almost good enough to bypass its own shortcomings and become a romantic-weepie classic...almost. Its parallel romantic plots, in past and present, are sweet, and the performances by young leads Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams and veterans James Garner and Gena Rowlands navigate the story smoothly through rough patches. But there's no avoiding the rote plot elements and the thorough lack of surprise: though I never read Sparks's novel, I could see for miles around each bend.

Arguably, lack of surprise is no obstacle to a tearjerker. After all, I distinctly heard sniffling and heavy breathing during the picture-perfect opening seconds of the movie (pink sunset, lone rower, slo-mo geese); obviously, I was among the Notebook faithful. Nevertheless, The Notebook is so obvious that it threatens at every moment to veer into parody.

Ostensibly, The Notebook has an air of mystery about it. The film's framing device depicts old man Duke (Garner), a nursing home resident, visiting with an Alzheimer's patient (Rowlands) Every day, he reads her the same story (out of the same notebook): a tale of young romance in the 1940s. Though the screenplay plays name games and half-heartedly feints in a false direction, rocket scientists need not apply to work out the immediately apparent connection between present and past.

In the notebook story—get this—a poor boy falls for a rich girl. In case the subtlety of this device might fail to reach you, screenwriters Jan Sardi and Jeremy Leven thoughtfully provide Garner with this voice-over recap of what we've been watching: "It was an improbable romance. He was a country boy; she was from the city. She had the world at her feet while he didn't have two dimes to rub together."

Gosling (Murder by Numbers) and McAdams (Mean Girls) winningly resuscitate idealized screen romance with a meet-cute scene, under-the-stars reveries, and gauzy montages, before the story feebly divides them. As McAdams's tightly wound mother, three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen screeches, "He is trash, trash, trash!", then adds (for clarity), "Not for you." McAdams replies, "You are not going to tell me who I'm going to love!" Yes, yes, but a fiery fight is all the opportunity Allen needs to separate the hot-blooded young lovers. In the successive montage, Allen keeps the lovers apart by intercepting not one, not a dozen, but 365 letters from Gosling to McAdams. (He could write 365 letters, but not, say, drop by the house?)

In a staggering two-minute sidetrack which would be funny if it weren't so gauche, Cassavetes uses World War II to inject some gunfire and explosions, to dispatch a character who has outlived his usefulness, and thereby to prime the audience's waterworks. Actually, it was pretty funny, come to think of it. Anyway, McAdams takes up with her parents' dream, a handsome and successful young businessman (James Marsden of X-Men). She falls in love with him, though Cassavetes refuses to complicate the audience's affections by flashing out Marsden's character. The characters remain paper-thin: Gosling takes McAdams to Li'l Abner; Marsden takes her to On the Town—it's all you need to know.

At least on film, an integral part of Sparks's broad appeal is his disingenuous exploitation of disease. In the film version of A Walk to Remember, Mandy Moore daintily coughed, beauty undiminished, through her weepy climax (Camille, if it were sponsored by Teen People), an affront to real cancer patients and their families. Likewise, families who have suffered the unsympathetic ravages of Alzheimer's may choke on Sparks's fairy dust. When Cassavetes gets to the home stretch with Garner and his mother Rowlands, he nearly puts a stark period on the end of the story, but the story lingers on to a music-swelling ellipsis.

For all this, The Notebook is sort of enjoyably bad. This summer romance about an endless-summer romance is all purple prose, but even a jaded movie critic has a hard time hating a movie that believes in true love, faith, and miracles.

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