Shamelessly sentimental, The Notebook is as predictable as a dimestore romance novel (it is based on the bestselling novel by Nicholas Sparks) but director Nick Cassavettes pulls it off.
The story of enduring love is told in evocative sequences set to music by Billie Holliday and Frederic Chopin. The effect yields something for anyone who has ever been in love, yearned for love or, through the tear-jerking narrative involving an old couple (James Garner and Gena Rowlands), watched loving parents grow wrinkled and gray.
After a carnival courtship so corny you expect the cast to break into a show tune, mill worker Noah (Ryan Gosling) and aristocratic Allie (Rachel McAdams) spend their pre-World War 2 summer days in Technicolor, skipping through small town streets, dancing with Negroes on the back porch and vowing undying devotion under the stars. Though modern sensibilities creep in, the design, score and, especially, Karyn Wagner’s costumes keep The Notebook in its 1940s Southern setting.
Cassavettes tenderly recreates romantic moments, letting still waters, creaky houses and booming thunderstorms set the tone, and The Notebook works best when indulging a sense of suspended time. The two lovers are separated as implausibly as they were enjoined—through clichéd rich parents—and the story follows their lives through war, work and maturity.
Sparks’ lovers are intended as a warm-up for something more resonant than a youthful romance and The Notebook’s couple is too plain to be fully engaging, despite an outstanding performance by Gosling, who’s as sincere as a wide-eyed prom date fixing his lady’s corsage.
It’s the older players, particularly Gena Rowlands, under direction by her son, Cassavettes, who breathe life into the syrupy saga. Transitions between present-day narrative and the past are tenuous, but the hokey lovers envelop the audience in their gauzy world long enough to build momentum for The Notebook’s climax—a formulaic manipulation that Miss Rowlands, Mr. Garner and, in a gentle performance as a nurse, Jennifer Echols play to the hilt.
The script is more romantic than realistic and, consequently, The Notebook is less dramatic than it might have been. Friends, fathers and fallen soldiers are forgotten, dialog is stilted and characters are riddled with inconsistencies, especially young Noah and Allie, whose tribulations ring false. Several cast members stand out, including James Marsden (Cyclops in X-Men), who’s wasted as Allie’s rich suitor in a role that deserves more screen time, Joan Allen as Allie’s mother, and Jamie Brown, who delivers a memorable scene as a war widow.
This Southern romance, ripped from Jimmy Durante’s schmaltzy “I’ll Be Seeing You” and anchored by Ryan Gosling and Gena Rowlands, plays its love story straight and Nick Cassavettes, cast and crew and New Line Cinema have created a poignant movie about being in love for a lifetime. In an age of doom—on and off screen—that is definitely noteworthy.
Originally posted on Box Office Mojo in 2004.