The Notebook is an old-fashioned movie of a particular sort — it’s an old-fashioned bad movie. It aims to be a heartbreaker, but the plight of its characters is more risible than miserable. Adapted from a novel by Nicholas Spark (whose Message in a Bottle was turned into a bloated Kevin Costner soaper), it’s a maudlin melodrama that ineptly tries to revive old clichés that could be better played for laughs.
The film moves between the present — featuring James Garner and Gena Rowlands as seniors in an old folks home — and the ’40s — featuring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as the star-crossed lovers Noah and Allie. Garner is reading the story of the lovers to Rowlands, who’s suffering from some sort of movie dementia where she has no memory of the past except during rare moments of lucidity. It’s soon apparent that Garner is reading her the story of their mutual past, hoping to evoke some spark of recognition as she treats him like a genial stranger.
Nothing about the flashbacks, which make up the bulk of the movie, has any semblance of verisimilitude — it’s like a past cobbled together from badly remembered old movies. Gosling is a farm boy who lives with his wise and folksy father (the character, played by Sam Shepard, is woefully underdeveloped), while McAdams is a city girl whose well-to-do parents are appalled that she would fall for this déclassé hick. Her mother (Joan Allen) embodies patrician disdain, while her father (David Thornton) has an absurd mustache that’s tightly curled at each end and seems made for villainous twirling, though he manages to restrain himself.
As if that weren’t enough, Noah and Allie’s love is interrupted by World War II, represented by a sequence so brief that you begin to wonder if the film might have had budgetary problems. Allie’s evil mom intercepts Noah’s letters to Allie and so, on the rebound, she marries somebody more appropriate for her class and station, a charmer (James Marsden) who all but has “cad” stamped on his forehead. But true love will prevail because it’s that kind of movie.
The film is directed by Nick Cassavetes, son of John, and it’s as dully conventional as his father’s movies were boldly eccentric (Rowlands, of course, is Nick’s mom, and we can assume that she’s just being supportive). Still, one gets the impression that this could have been a very sad story if it weren’t so poorly done, so ridiculous and so badly written. It’s hard not to be moved by the film’s first climax, just as it’s hard not to groan at its second one. But by then you’re just glad it’s over.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.