Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Notebook Movie Review: A Visit to the Past

It’s very rare that I revisit films that I originally found to be decent entertainments but without much reason for repeat viewings. An unusual set of circumstances led to my watching The Notebook again six years after seeing it in the cinema. My wife wanted to see it because some friends had recommended it, their own recollections of the film stirred by the name of our son, Noah. I wouldn’t have watched it except that our DVD player seems to be broken which meant it had to be viewed on my laptop leaving me with little to do but to go back to the book I put down about four months ago.

Turns out it was about as good as I remember it, no more and no less. Based on the popular novel by Nicholas Sparks, it’s a rather standard across the tracks romance in which a wealthy socialite on summer holiday falls in love with a working class local. There’s very little in this story that you haven’t seen before. The two young lovers have a Meet Cute – she rejects him at first, but he does something crazy and impulsive to win her attention. Summer love blooms. Her parents disapprove. She is welcomed by his father, himself a model in contrast to the stuck up and prejudice opinions of her parents. They fight. They make love. She goes off to college at the end of the summer – Sarah Lawrence, just in case you didn’t quite get what social class they were a part of. They lose touch due to the intervention of her mother. She falls in love with another, gets engaged. She has doubts. Returns to her first love and rekindles the flame. Who will she choose?

When you spell it out like that, does it really sound like something you want to go out of your way to see? In his project choices, director Nick Cassavetes seems determined to shrug off the ghost of his father, John, who is widely regarded as the grandfather of independent cinema. John made films that were outside the Hollywood mainstream – films that challenged audiences and film making conventions alike. Apart from casting Gena Rowlands (his mother) in a key role, Nick’s film bears no resemblance to the movement his father started.

The Notebook is decidedly unchallenging. It is in fact demonstrative in its desire not to upset or offend anyone. It tries so hard to be all things to all people. The one single convention that is turned on its head is that Allie’s mother (Joan Allen) is the roadblock to her daughter’s romance while her father is much more passive, even to the point that when he spies her getting awfully cozy with Noah in the front seat of his pickup, he sloughs it off with a mild chuckle. But I’d be willing to bet these are details that are drawn from the book and not from the screenplay by Jeremy Leven.

The intention to make a perfectly benign movie seeps out of the films edges. It practically bleeds inoffensiveness. It’s in the perfect southern gentleman persona of Allie’s father, who never has a bad word to say about Noah; it’s in the late revelation that Allie’s mother has good reason for preventing Allie and Noah from being together; it’s in the unlikely scene on Noah’s father’s (Sam Shepard) front porch with a group of black people singing and dancing, as if a middle aged white man’s closest friends in 1940 South Carolina would be black; and it’s in the sanitized vision of WWII when Noah goes off to fight. He can barely muster a grimace when he sees his best friend killed. I suppose this is meant to express the incredible conceit that his summer love with Allie had a more profound effect on him than his experiences in Patton’s Third Army.

Rowlands figures in the story in several intercut contemporary scenes she shares with James Garner. They are both residents in a nursing home where he reads the story of Noah and Allie to her every day. It’s revealed at about the halfway mark that Rowlands is Allie, now suffering from dementia. She has no recollection of any of the events in the story. Instead she reacts to it like a child being read a bedtime story. My understanding of Alzheimer’s is that it degrades your memory (among other things) but not that you revert to a state of childlike fascination with the things around you. The question that I think is supposed to be a bit mysterious until the end is the identity of the Garner character. We assume he must be Noah, but then he could be Allie’s second love, Lon (James Marsden).

The story might work better without the modern day scenes. If it were presented simply as a story of an unlikely romance and a decision that stretches Allie between two worlds, I think the drama would be enough. Perhaps Leven, and by extension Sparks in his novel, didn’t have enough confidence in the story for it to stand on its own, so it had to be supplemented with the addition of overly sentimental pap.

What makes it work more than anything else are the charismatic performances of Ryan Gosling as Noah and Rachel McAdams as Allie. Here were two young actors who hadn’t yet been tested and were little known if they were known at all. Their individual charm, on-screen chemistry, and talent make up for the conventional storyline.

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