Thanks to papa John (Husbands, Gloria), the name Cassavetes has come to symbolize intrepid, no-apologies filmmaking and the unconventional human interaction within Now, 15 years after the maverick's death, his heir has traveled to the opposite pole, adapting a Nicholas Sparks novel into a standard tearjerker, filling the screen with handfuls of manipulative Hollywood clichés.
The Notebook chronicles the courtship of Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling, Murder by Numbers) and Allie Nelson (Mean Girls' Rachel McAdams), two feisty Southerners from vastly different social upbringings. Noah's a quiet lumberyard worker with a couple of bucks and Allie's a rich and studious go-getter with the world at her feet. Noah sees pretty miss Allie for the first time at a carnival just before WWII, and falls for her instantly. He chases her and quickly wins her heart, and the two enjoy the wistful type of first romance that makes anyone pine for a simpler time.
The acting pair is engaging (Gosling especially), the Southern front-porch atmosphere is inviting, and the film has a decent energy and pacing. The problem? A storytelling device that plunges The Notebook into the territory of CBS Hallmark specials. The fable of these young lovers is being told in flashback, as old-timer James Garner plays oral historian, passing the tale along to a not-all-there Gena Rowlands. As she repeatedly wonders aloud, "How will this story end?" it becomes glaringly apparent that the film's likable romance exists primarily to get to an overly weepy ending -- one that Cassavetes and screenwriter Jeremy Leven (Alex and Emma) enjoy shoving down our throats.
I'd bet this jumping back and forth along the timeline is essential in Sparks's novel, but it's wasteful onscreen, holding little of the emotion or tension that the filmmakers intended. This type of framework has been a stumbling block for solid Hollywood entertainment before, recently in Saving Private Ryan (the clunky narrative of the Normandy visit) and The Bridges of Madison County (the reading of notes and letters). The Notebook's problem, however, is worse: By hinging on the dynamic of the flashback, rather than its action and meaning, the past loses some of its heartache and sting, and the film feels like nothing but a means to an end.
In the 1940s scenes, Cassavetes gives us small spoonfuls of reality like disapproving parents, nervous lovers and even war. In the current day, we get an insulting Hollywood view of what appears to be Alzheimer's -- simply called "dementia," presumably so the filmmakers could play around with its effects for the sake of the story. We also get the film's most cursory, stagy dialogue, as well as performances that can't lift those words out of the muck.
Anyone can appreciate the power of love and the amazing things it can do. You can turn on 20/20 or Dateline about once a month and see incredible tales of how love and dedication help a family stay together or give an injured friend remarkable strength. Taking that concept to sappy levels in fiction carries little weight in comparison. Cassavetes doesn't provide the passion of say, a Lorenzo's Oil -- instead he gives us pieces of a romance novel (and I don't mean The Notebook itself) minus the steamy parts. We get young people starting out and old people at the end of the road, and are expected to take their lifetime love and commitment at face value... even though we never get to actually see it. If you want a Cassavetes film about real commitment, try Unhook the Stars. Or, better yet, try the senior Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence.
The DVD includes a substantial number of deleted scenes, two commentary tracks, and a few extra featurettes which the cultlike fans of this film will devour whole.
Run time: 123 mins
In Theaters: Friday 25th June 2004
Box Office Worldwide: $115.6M
Production compaines: New Line Cinema
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Screenwriter: Jeremy Leven
Starring: Rachel McAdams as Allie Hamilton, Ryan Gosling as Noah Calhoun, Gena Rowlands as Allie Calhoun, James Garner as Duke, Sam Shepard as Frank Calhoun, Joan Allen as Anne Hamilton, James Marsden as Lon Hammond Jr., David Thornton as John Hamilton, Kevin Connolly as Fin