July 02, 2004

The Notebook

Directed by Nick Cassavetes Starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Gena Rowlands and James Garner

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

In The Notebook, Duke (James Garner) dutifully sits by the Alzheimer's-plagued Allie (Gena Rowlands) all day in a nursing home and reads her pages from a notebook to remind her of her past. "This is a good story. I think I've heard it before," an engrossed Allie tells Duke. Viewers will also be able to relate to this feeling of déjà vù.

The entries in the notebook recount the against-all-odds summer fling between privileged debutant Allie (Rachel McAdams) and destitute lumberjack Noah (Ryan Gosling). This romance seems to face every contrived obstacle imaginable-class difference, a meddling mother who confiscates love letters, a fiance standing in the way and even the World War II draft. All these time-tested plot devices inevitably bring to mind Cinema Paradiso, Titanic, Big Fish and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Moviegoers can be assured this is the kind of sappy yarn to bring them to tears, be it out of sadness or boredom.

Even if you are really in the mood for an escapist romance or a sentimental tearjerker, to enjoy this film from beginning to end still requires more than just the suspension of disbelief. While the equally over-the-top Big Fish at least passes as an elaborate revisionist fantasy, The Notebook stages its improbable melodrama with all the seriousness and sincerity of a TV movie of the week. The film eventually rewards its viewers with a moving finale, but only after it drags on in the mud for what seems like a lifetime.

Despite the charismatic performances of Gosling and McAdams set against the picturesque backdrop of the mystic American South, this star-crossed romance is memorable mostly for its borderline ludicrousness. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, the already cliche-ridden plots meet their match in a ham-handed adaptation by Jeremy Levin and Jan Sardi (The Legend of Bagger Vance and Shine, respectively). To ask Allie out, Noah suspends himself midair hanging onto the Ferris wheel with one arm. Once she agrees to go out, the young lovers would lie on the street watching the traffic lights change or frolic along the beach pretending to be flying birds. When Allie misses her curfew, her mother forbids her to see Noah again and angrily declares "He is trash!"

The film's saving grace is its modern-day scenes featuring Garner and Rowlands, mother of the director. They manage to overcome the inane dialogue and elevate the film with subtle yet powerful performances. During the haunting final scenes, they beautifully realize a love challenged by the torment, desperation and horror associated with Allie's memory loss. All of the troubles depicted earlier in the film seem like much ado about nothing in comparison.

Unfortunately the film has vested the bulk of its running time on the sexier flashbacks involving the young lovers, and those precious scenes between Rowlands and Garner are too few.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.