I cannot believe I'm about to recommend a movie as clogged with melodramatic treacle as Nick Cassavetes' adaptation of "The Notebook" -- a self-serious soap opera by novelist Nicholas Sparks, who never met a romantic cliché, dramatic contrivance, transparent plot point or insipid line of dialogue he didn't love like a dog in heat.
Even more outwardly trite than the author's "A Walk to Remember" and "Message In a Bottle," this story is about a beautiful, privileged Southern debutante falling in love with a young, earthy mill worker in the small town where she spends the summer of 1940.
Her high-and-mighty parents object, naturally, and drag her off to Savannah. He writes every day, but her mother intercepts the letters, and the heartbroken Allie (Rachel McAdams, "Mean Girls") doesn't find out until seven years later that the heartbroken Noah (Ryan Gosling, "Murder by Numbers") never stopped thinking about her. They meet again by chance, just as she's about to marry a generically wonderful rich guy (James Marsden) -- whom she really does love, of course. But when she sees Noah...well, you get the idea.
There is not one single millisecond of originality or opaqueness in the entirety of "The Notebook," and by all rights the actors should be dragged down and drowned by the boat anchor of a script. Yet, through what must be the super-human will of a uniformly fantastic cast determined to keep their heads above water, something remarkable happens: These characters not only come vividly to life, they also seem so earnestly and effortlessly unaffected that even while taking furious notes about the aggravatingly trite and predictable corniness of their circumstances, I still became honestly and emotionally invested in their affair.
Both beguiling, apple-cheeked McAdams and fervent, unfettered, philosophical Gosling have unexpected depth and palpable emotional gravitas -- but not so much that they don't truly feel like a couple kids discovering freedom in the throes of first love and terrible despair the wake of having it torn from them. When they meet again in their 20s, the weight of those emotions, which have taken seed in the deep recesses of their souls, is even more palpable.
Contributing to the movie's heartbeat (and heartbreak) is a modern wrap-around story set in a care home, where frail heart patient James Garner lovingly reads the story of Noah and Allie to Alzheimer's-ravaged Gina Rowlands, thus narrating the period story with awful lines like, "It was an improbable romance. He was a country boy while she was from the city. She had the world at her feet while he didn't have two dimes to rub together." Yeish!
But again, wonderful acting makes up for the fact that despite conspicuous efforts not to identify these older characters by names, it's more than obvious who they are and what Garner hopes to accomplish by recounting this story to Rowlands.
The fact that director Cassavetes (Rowland's son) nurtures his actors into such affecting performances goes a long way toward offsetting his complacency in the script's cursory style. "The Notebook" is so singularly focused on cheap romantic melodrama that the entirety of World War II is reduced a montage sequence in which, of course, Noah's best friend dies in his arms on the battlefield. Its plot is so thin that Allie's fiancé is never a convincing impediment because he doesn't get any more screen time than the war, although McAdams' heartfelt romantic bewilderment makes up the difference.
Even the development of the central relationship is sometimes told in shorthand. After nothing but gauzy scenes of kissing, laughing and staring in each others' eyes, suddenly Garner's narration makes the hitherto unsubstantiated claim that "They didn't agree on much. They fought all the time."
But Garner, Rowlands, Gosling and McAdams rise so far above the volumes of drivel that inundate "The Notebook" that by the end I'd completely abandoned my cynicism toward the picture and became genuinely (and frustratingly) choked up as it came to the inevitable, tear-jerking conclusion I'd seen coming way back in the first reel.
By no stretch of the imagination would I call "The Notebook" a good movie, but it is a shining example of how great acting can overcome even the worst script.