United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Sam Shepard
Jan Sardi & Jeremy Leven, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks
New Line Cinema
I have not read Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook, but I have heard good word-of-mouth about the novel. Sadly, the elements that made the book special did not survive the transition to the screen. The Notebook, as adapted by Nick Cassavetes from a screenplay by Jan Sardi and Jeremy Leven, comes across as an ordinary romantic melodrama with a maudlin and ineffective climax. It's the kind of story for which no term seems more appropriate than "soap opera."
The film unfolds in two time frames featuring the same characters. In the modern day scenes, Noah is played by James Garner and Allie by Gena Rowlands (the director's mother). In the sequences that transpire around World War II, the leads are Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. It turns out that Allie is suffering from dementia, so, to stir her memories, Noah reads from a notebook that recounts their tumultuous, improbable romance. They met as teenagers in pre-WWII America. For Noah, it was love at first sight, but it took him a while to convince Allie. Almost immediately, the disparity of their social classes became an issue - she came from money and he was a laborer. The disapproval of Allie's mother (Joan Allen) led to their break-up. But fate brought them together after the war, and before Allie married her soldier beau (James Marsden).
The 1940s sequences are superior to those that transpire in the 2000s. Admittedly, the love affair between Allie and Noah is typical stuff, but Cassevetes directs the actors competently, the characters are likeable (you want them to end up together), and there's evident chemistry between Gosling and McAdams. The cinematography is evocative and the music never goes over-the-top. Unfortunately, things don't work nearly as well when Garner and Rowlands take over the parts. Their aspect of the story doesn't work. It comes across as a badly diluted imitation of Iris (which handles the issue of fading memory with more poignancy than The Notebook could hope for). And, not only are the modern-day scenes dramatically inert, but it's virtually impossible to accept that these are the same people as the ones falling in love in the '40s. Fortunately, only about 20% of the movie unfolds when the characters are in their twilight years.
The Notebook represents an instance when the desire to obtain a particular MPAA rating has resulted in some bizarre choices. To avoid courting an R, the actors are forced to cover themselves with sheets and the camera is often positioned in a way that makes it seem almost as if the characters are posing. The material in The Notebook is inherently adult in nature (how many teenagers are going to see this movie?), so why neuter its sexuality in pursuit of a PG-13?
Fans of sudsy romances will adore The Notebook, but the film fails to manipulate the intellect with the same effectiveness that it tweaks the emotions. The best thing that can be said about the movie is that it's a worthy antidote to the usual testosterone-driven summer fare, but, in its inability to effectively develop the modern aspect of the story, it fails to throw the tear-jerking emotional punch it might have achieved.