A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE NOTEBOOK jjjj

2004, PG-13, 122 mins.

Young Allie Nelson: Rachel McAdams / Young Noah Calhoun: Ryan Gosling / Allie Nelson: Gena Rowlands / Noah Calhoun: James Garner / Allie's Mother: Joan Allen / Sara Tuffington: Heather Wahlquist / Mary Allen Calhoun: Nancy De Mayo / Rosemary: Sylvia Jefferies

Directed by Nick Cassavetes /  Written by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi /  Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks

I am not too sure if I believe in  love at first sight.  I am far, far too cynical  for that type of nonsense.  However, I definitely believe in love at first sight in the movies.  The Cinema has always been a curious beast of multiple identities.  Some films work on a distinct level of transporting us to a different time and place and, viscerally, wow us with their amazing visuals (i.e. STAR WARS).  Other films work as textbook exercises in intimidating or scaring the audience (i.e. PSYCHO, THE EXORCIST).  Even further, some films can be uplifting and inspire our sympathies with their respective characters, as they overcome incredible odds to achieve victory (i.e. ROCKY). 

Then we come to the always-difficult genre of the romantic melodrama, which, behind satires and comedies, is the most difficult genre to play off of.  Melodramas work when there's strong emotional investment in them, not to mention a wonderfully conceived "love at first sight storyĒ behind them.  Even more so, these stories transport us to a type of emotional response that elicits strong feelings. 

Some films make us angry, ambivalent, defensive, spiteful, happy, and even sad.  The best ones have a profound effect of transcending their inherent melodrama by making us cry.  THE NOTEBOOK is one of those films.  Itís a film that is a masterpiece of manipulating with audience emotion and a skilled exercise in sappy melodrama.  I never, for once, believed in the story of its two main  characters, but THE NOTEBOOK reminds us that some of the best films are ones that arenít realistic or have strong, pertinent messages in them.  THE NOTEBOOK is more sentimentalÖlike a romantic fable, but it's sincere, honest, and old-fashioned in a way that will inspire tears in even the harshest of hearts.  I donít cry very much in the darkened theatres, but this one sure made me closer to tears that any recent film. 

I have to admit that I have not  read the novel the film is based on, written by author Nicholas Sparks.  I have been told that itís a best seller and has garnered strong word of mouth from many a water-cooler discussion I've had.  The film adaptation is directed by Nick Cassavetes and written by Jan Sardi and Jeremy Leven.  On paper, the screenplay plays like a typical soap opera melodrama.  There is no doubt that the film is impeded by its own pretentiousness.  Yet, it's sensationally effective in the sense that it does not bury itself in its sappy sentimentality (which many modern melodramas do).  It finds that masterful middle-ground between working too hard to make us cry and not doing enough to make us  respond on any meaningful level.  There is no doubt that the romance featured in the film is tumultuous, predictable, and, letís face it, improbable.  Yet, the film is done with so much spirit, easygoing style, simplicity and subtlety that it works.   Okay, melodrama is not high art, but who said that it canít be done really well?  If it provides that necessary emotional wallop and does so consistently, then it succeeds in its intended nature. 

THE NOTEBOOK is a throwback fantasy that harks back to the classical romances of Hollywoodís past, those innocent and innocuous films that were simply about people and their undying love for one another.  I guess that in our day and age of relentless blood and gore and unheard of pageantry of all things despicable, THE NOTEBOOK is a daring and brave film in its desire to be wholesomely emotional, and it never sways away from its sentimentality.  Itís the kind of endearing love story that we all wish we could live to some degree or another, and one in which its outcome is completely foreseen, especially for anyone remotely familiar with the basic structure of these type of films.  Its noble, straightforward storytelling at its strongest, and it definitely has our investment in its characters.  You really, really yearn for the characters in this film in ways that more serious and grounded films have failed to do. 

THE NOTEBOOK tells a love story of two people at the summer and winter of their respective lives, and it intercuts and weaves in and out of these two time periods very effectively.  We see the young couple meet as teenagers and eventually become inseparable.  We bare witness to the insurmountable obstacles that were put in their place towards their everlasting bliss.  The warmness and color of these past expository scenes are in sharp contrast to the moments of the couple as they enter old age, and especially so when it's revealed that the woman is slowly seeing her life wither away at the treacherous hand of Alzheimer's disease. 

The film poses a dark premise.  Whatís more tear-inducing - seeing the problems that impede the young lovers trying to rightfully get together or the fact that the woman, once elderly, canít even remember those past struggles, or even the man she has loved for a lifetime?  Yet, this film is uplifting, not harmful storytelling, and it is made all the more tender by the fact that the husband, blind in his love, reads to his suffering wife everyday from a notebook they constructed which tells the story of how they met, fell in love, and became who they are in the present.  The husband does this, maybe in an effort to ensure that their story of love does not die with her disease.  The film is both about the roots of love and the insidiousness of disease, and it balances both expertly. 

While the husband reads to her from the well-detailed notebook, the wife begins to re-familiarize herself with the particulars of the story.  The story in the book transports us to pre-World War II South Carolina.  In it,  an attractive and rich Southern debutante named Allie (Rachel McAdams, in a star making performance) becomes involved with a poor mill worker named Noah (the equally spirited Ryan Gosling).   Noah sees Allie and it's love at first sight, but their love is complicated by the inevitable class struggle that is brought out by Allieís completely domineering and snobby aristocratic parents. 

Their teenage love is destroyed even before it blossoms into something more, and the two break up, somewhat unwillingly, seeing as the impending social struggle may be too much for both to handle.  He goes off to fight in the war; she goes off to a big city college and meets another man, a handsome war hero (played by X-Menís James Marsden).  Allie is smitten with the young soldier, and even agrees to become his wife, but when the young Noah re-emerges in her life after her engagement, it reawakens old feelings that she canít possibly let go.  Fate separated the two lovers, but destiny will seemingly bring them back together. 

The film is made or broken by the performances in it, and THE NOTEBOOK features some truly fine work.  Young Ryan and Allie are played by McAdams and Gosling with the right pitch and their natural and easy-going chemistry is clearly evident from the very get go.  The greatness of their work here is just how little they do to inspire our attachment to them.  They donít overplay the roles and hammer down the sentiment until we feel that we are being force-fed it.  Their performances are understated and bring realism to the preposterousness of the proceedings.  Their abilities pay respect to the conventions of melodrama while not feeling slavish to it.  Gosling has always been a good actor and is continuing to rise.  His previous edgier roles donít really prepare him for this film, but he succeeds in establishing an empathetic leading man.  McAdams is the real charmer in the film.  Sheís terribly attractive (think Jennifer Garner meets Judy Garland) and has the poise, charisma, spirit, and plucky energy to carry herself (and her character) above the film.  The key to the film is in these young leads, and by the end, you care for them so much that you want them to be together. 

The two lovers are played in the present by the great James Garner and Gena Rowlands.  Their story is just as passionate as their younger counterparts, but in different ways.  The young lovers faced obstacles to establishing their love, but now the older couple faces even harsher dilemmas by trying to preserve their love.  I was inspired by just how effortless the performances by Garner and Rowlands were, and they both do so with confidence and ease.  They both push all the right emotional buttons, never striving too hard for our sympathies, but nevertheless getting it.   Watching the two together is a joy, and a healthy reminder of what two truly great actors can do with good material 

The film is also filled with other equally fine work, especially by Joan Allen as Allieís mother.  She starts the film as one of those stereotypical, arrogant and selfish mother figures that seems like the greatest obstacle in her daughterís love of a man whom she sees as ďtrashĒ.  But, amazingly, the film fleshes out her character later in surprising ways, and provides her with a beautifully realized moment of sad regret  that generates our own sympathies in her.  Sam Shepard also makes a small appearance as Noah's father, and plays the part with charm, dignity, and humor.  James Marsden may have the most thankless role in the film as the soldier who wishes to marry Allie, and his response to Noah emerging back into her life  was not so much predictable as it was surprising.  There is no obligatory fight between the male suitors, but rather a small and quiet moment where he questions the troubled Allie and asks her to make her own choice.  Most films donít have the perseverance to be so introspective with their characters. 

THE NOTEBOOK is not just a shameless tearjerker, but a gloriously realized one at that.  Itís a quiet and simply told story of endearing love that is allowed to rise above its predictability by the strength of its performances.  The actors create real weight to their characters, and director Nick Cassavetes knows that the best way to tell this story is not with flashy camera work and an avant-garde style, but to just simply tell a good story in a straightforward manner.  The film is actually very beautiful to look at (the opening scenes are powerfully realized moments of vivid cinematography, and a later scene involving the two lovers in a boat has a magical, almost surrealistic and transcending effect on us).  THE NOTEBOOK is in the grand tradition of the best elements of melodrama Ė people overcoming all odds to make their love work.  No more is this evident in a small and heart-wrenching scene where the older Allie remembers her husband and, minutes later, forgets him as if she never met him.  Is this scene methodical and manipulative?  Yes.  Did it have a profound effect on me?  Most assuredly.  The film may be an overly- sentimental romantic melodrama, but it proves that if itís done with just the right skill and restraint, then they can be the most powerful of all genres.  THE NOTEBOOK is a masterstroke work in this arena, and there was not a dry eye in the theatre as the end credits rolled by.

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