When seventeen year old Charleston society girl Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams, "Mean Girls") attends a carnival in her family's summertime residence of Seabrook, North Carolina, she meets a brash nineteen year old local boy, Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling, "The United States of Leland"), who suspends himself from her Ferris Wheel swing in order to get a date. Decades later, in a lakeside Carolina nursing home, Duke (James Garner, "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood") will read their story to a woman (Gena Rowlands, "Taking Lives") suffering from Alzheimer's from "The Notebook."
Adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels (screenplay by Jeremy Leven, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," adaptation by Jan Sardi, "Shine") continue on an upward curve with director Nick Cassavetes' ("John Q.") affecting love story. The director proves particularly adept with the casting of his leads - who knew the skinhead of "The Believer" would have such romantic chemistry with the lead "Mean Girl?"
The film opens as an elderly woman (Rowlands) watches a flight of geese take wing over a canoe rower silhouetted in the sunset, evoking "On Golden Pond's seniors attachment to their loons. A nurse enters to prepare for bedtime, but Duke arrives to read and the action flashes back to a 1940s carnival. After Allie humiliates Noah for his cheek, he continues to pursue her relentlessly until finally, Noah's buddy Fin (Kevin Connolly, "John Q.") and his girlfriend set Allie up on an unwitting blind date. After a movie, the duo split off and connect. Noah convinces Allie to lie in the street side by side to watch a traffic light change color (a visual image which recurs until the film's conclusion). After hearing about her regimented lifestyle preparing for a tony college, Noah informs her 'That's your problem - you don't do what you want to do,' an astute evaluation which he will repeat most significantly seven years later. Allie's future is on a track set by her mother, Ann (Joan Allen, "The Contender"), who views the young mill worker as a threat.
The two fall desperately in love over the summer until one climactic night when Noah takes Allie to see the run down plantation house he dreams of restoring. Talk of their future and consummation of their relationship is interrupted when Fin bursts in to tell them the Hamiltons have called the police to search for their daughter who is now out way past her curfew. Harsh words at the Hamilton manse result in a breakup which neither really wants. Then World War II calls Noah away as Allie heads to New York for college. The daily letters Noah writes for a full year are intercepted by Ann Hamilton, who is delighted when Allie is pursued by a young injured soldier she meets volunteering at a local hospital. Lon (James Marsden, "X2: X-Men United") is handsome, Southern and extremely wealthy. Meanwhile, Noah returns from the war to discover his father (Sam Shepard, "Black Hawk Down") has sold his house so that Noah can rebuild the old mansion. The completed job is so impressive, Noah's picture appears on the front of the local paper, which Allie sees as she's being fitted for her wedding gown.
The edgy Gosling can now add tormented romantic lead to his resume. The young actor is tremendously appealing as a simple young man who knows what he wants and sets out to achieve it. The haunted quality he assumes during his post-Allie years is palpable, giving his affair with war widow Martha (Jamie Anne Brown) a desultory, depressed air. When Allie returns and a rain-soaked excursion resparks their romance, Gosling and McAdams turn up the heat. Both actors give the PG-13 sex scenes lusty conviction. McAdams is a revelation in her turn as the bright young girl open to adventures outside her realm of experience while staying the girl who suppresses her own needs with her ingrained instinct to do right by societal expectations. Joan Allen takes the unglamorous role of the scheming mother, until her true motivation is uncovered in an emotional unveiling to her daughter. Cassavetes regular David Thornton ("John Q."), so good in "Unhook the Stars," is a plus as Allie's permissive father John, an expansive Southerner with a Mark Twain moustache who recognizes the strength of his daughter's feelings. James Marsden is quite good as the perfect Lon, although his character is given short shrift by a too abruptly handled plot twist.
It's a pleasure to watch Garner and Rowlands together, but it is the current day story that is sunk by Sparks' schmaltz. Anyone who is surprised at these character's true identities hasn't seen many movies and the truthful edge generated by healthy conflicts in flashback is dampened by greeting card devotion in the present. Still, the nursing home dementia of the elderly character is a bittersweet allegory of the separation and return recounted in the notebook.
Director of photography Robert Fraisse's ("Enemy at the Gates") crisp lensing matches Sarah Knowles' pristine production design.
"The Notebook" is a big old-fashioned love story with enough bite at its center to keep from being overcome by its marshmallowy coating.
A man rows along a peaceful lake as the sun dawns on the horizon. The camera tracks ahead to a flock of geese taking off and flies along with them until it slows down to rest on the aging face of a woman (Gena Rowlands) looking onto the dawning day. An elderly man (James Garner) waits patiently, book in hand, to read to the woman a story about a young couple that, many years ago, fell deeply in love in “The Notebook.”
Nick Cassavetes has had, if anything, an eclectic career in filmmaking with lots of time spent in front of the camera and, more recently, doing helming duty behind. His debut, “Unhook the Star,” starred mom Rowlands and Marisa Tomei in a touching character study of a woman taking charge of her life. I never took to his sophomore effort, the decidedly offbeat “She’s So Lovely,” and enjoyed the father-who-will-do-anything-to-save-his-son hostage drama, “John Q.” “The Notebook” represents a leap in cinematic maturity for the director as he adapts the tremendously popular weeper by Nicolas Sparks to the big screen.
Working with Jeremy Leven’s screenplay of Jan Sardi’s adaptation of Spark’s first work, Cassavetes tells a story within a story as Noah (Garner) reads to the bewildered, dementia-suffering Allie (Rowlands) from a notebook. He tells her the tale of a young couple, Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and Allie Nelson (Rachel McAdam), who met and fell in love during the summer of 1940. He works in a lumberyard for 40 cents an hour and has the plan to buy and rebuild a dilapidated old mansion on the outskirts of the South Carolina town. She has the proverbial silver spoon afforded by her wealthy father (John Thornton) and dictated over by her ambitious, strong-willed mother (Joan Allen). Though the couple in love has an idyllic summer romance (with their frequent arguments that bring them closer together), Allie’s mother has very different plans than having her daughter marrying beneath her and poor.
Allie is forced to leave Noah and is almost dragged back to New York City to attend college. He writes her every day for a year but never gets one word back. Unbeknownst to Allie and Noah, mom has kept every letter away from her daughter. Noah had resigned himself to the fact that Allie has forgotten him when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. He joins the Army and is sent off to fight the war against Germany. When he returns home, his Walt Whitman-loving father (Sam Shepard) sells the family home and gives Noah the money to fulfill his dream to restore the old mansion. Noah throws himself into the project and does such a masterful (and eccentric) job he even gets his face in newspapers across the country.
Meanwhile, after Allie is taken away, she waits anxiously to here from Noah but never does. She completes her education and volunteers for hospital work to care for wounded soldiers. One, a particularly damaged young flyer, Lon Hammond (James Marsden), asks Allie for a date, which, though flattered, she politely refuses. Later, when he is released from the hospital, miraculously and completely healed, he asks her out again and the handsome pilot sweeps the lonely Allie off of her feet. Lon is from old South money and Allie’s mother approves of their marriage. Everything looks rosy for Allie until she sees the article about Noah and his manse.
The love story is rekindled when Allie tells Lon she needs some time to think about things before they tie the knot. Concerned for his fiancée’s happiness, Lon agrees that she must do what she must do, no questions asked. She makes the trek south and shows up on Noah’s doorstep to confront her first love and question why he never wrote. Stunned by the accusation, Noah tells her that he wrote her every day for a year and why didn’t she reply? Allie then realizes that her mother is the reason why her true love for Noah went unrequited for so many years. The couple picks up, with a lustful vengeance, where they left off seven years before.
This flashback sentimental romance is bookended by the modern day story as Noah reads to Allie about the young couple. She doesn’t remember him from day to day as we learn that she is in the advanced stages of dementia and Noah is reading to try and trigger her memories. This is the part where the hankies come out and Noah experiences emotional turmoil as he opens a door in her mind only to have it slammed shut by her illness. Garner gives a moving performance as the patient and loving Noah.
The acting in “The Notebook” is handled well on both ends of the age spectrum. Garner, in particular, puts a strong spin on his character in a limited amount of screen time. Rowlands, always a pleasure, has the tough balancing act as a woman slowly and literally losing her mind. She has to put enough lucidity into the perf to give Noah hope but will, in reality, never get better. Very nice, touching performances by the veteran thesps.
Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdam are also credible and very likable as the young Noah and Allie. Gosling made a solid debut as a conflicted Jewish student turned white supremacist in “The Believer” and McAdam shone as the selfish high school queen bee in “Mean Girls.” Both showed talent but I wasn’t prepared for the chemistry between the two in “The Notebook.” McAdam, especially, is enthusiastic and exuberant as Allie throws herself wholeheartedly into her romance with Noah. The actress has an infective on-screen presence and, when she laughs, you believe it. Gosling also does a fine job as the sensitive male (isn’t that an oxymoron?) and makes his devotion to Allie feel real.
Supporting characters are well cast with Sam Shepard giving a warm, kind perf as Noah’s dad. Joan Allen, as usual, does a letter-perfect job as Allie’s aggressive mother who ends up telling her daughter her own back-story of unrequited love. James Marsden has the movie star looks and easy presence that gives his character, Lon, full dimension. John Thornton, as Allies father, starts off as a sympathetic character but his role is overshadowed by his wife’s ironhanded grip on her daughter’s life. Jamie Brown is sympathetic as Martha, the young war widow Noah turns to for comfort but who is always in Allie’s shadow.
Techs are beautifully done on all levels. Lenser Robert Fraisse provides very different looks between the sepia toned hues of the summer of 1940 to the cooler palette of the modern-day story. Sarah Knowles production design, especially surrounding the young Noah and Allie, does a fine job of giving a stylish look to the period portion. The costuming, by Karen Wagner, also fits the period bill.
“The Notebook” is the kind of film where the guys will make points with their significant other by going to see it. While the majority of weepers at the screening were femmes, I heard one or two guys coughing back the tears as I was leaving. Quelle chique flique! Don’t forget your hankies. I give it a B+.
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