Tears in Heaven

Need a love story to cry over? Leaf through The Notebook.

Jun 23, 2004 at 4:00 am
It's often a challenge to fairly assess a film that, by its very conception, is simply targeted to an entirely different demographic than one's own. I am not by nature romantic, or female; for those who are, it may have to suffice that the members of the mostly double-X-chromosomed crowd watching The Notebook at a press screening were all sniffling and snorting so hard throughout that a less-sensitive soul might have suspected a severe allergy to some sort of mold spores, perhaps contained within the building's walls.

But indeed, the snorts were accompanied by copious tears, so if you're the sort who enjoys shedding such in darkened theaters, your must-see summer movie has arrived. For many readers, that's all you'll need to know. The assessment that follows is for the benefit of those who may be dragged along to the theater by their favorite grief-addict.

Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, and thoroughly embellished by screenwriters Jeremy Leven (Don Juan DeMarco) and Jan Sardi (Shine) since the book was virtually plotless, The Notebook begins in the present day, as an amiable old man who goes by the nickname of Duke (James Garner) introduces himself to an Alzheimer's-stricken woman (Gena Rowlands) at the rest home where they both reside. To brighten up her day, he reads her a story from his notebook about two young lovers: lower-class lumberjack/carpenter Noah (Ryan Gosling) and well-bred academic prodigy Allie (Rachel McAdams).

The elderly woman doesn't think she knows the man, and yet somehow the story instantly appeals. It will probably be immediately apparent to most viewers what the connection is between the aging twosome and the young lovers in the story, but the movie treats it as a late revelation. When it becomes clear that the man reads the same tale anew to the woman every day, one is reminded of 50 First Dates, minus the sucking.

The strength of Sparks' novel -- aside from its brevity -- is its ability to put the reader inside the head of someone in love. When it comes to story, there ain't much: Noah meets Allie, and they fall in love immediately, then they part and don't see each other for years. When they meet again, they fall in love again, and that's about it. For the sake of a two-hour movie, Leven and Sardi have our hero jumping onto a moving Ferris wheel, lying down with his beloved in the middle of the road like in that stupid James Caan football movie, going to war and watching a friend die right in front of him, and so forth. The best embellishment the writers come up with is the expanded role of Noah's dad, played by Sam Shepard as a whimsical redneck who says things like, "Look at that! That's a damn picture there!"

Also expanded is the backstory for Allie's cold-hearted mother (Joan Allen), who's given a motive for her meanness; and that of Noah's competition, a handsome soldier named Lon (James Marsden), who was a lawyer in the book.

Director Nick Cassavetes has inherited some of his father's talent for character study, as seen in his first two films, Unhook the Stars and She's So Lovely, the latter of which features a love triangle very similar to that in The Notebook. He does seem to have a slightly better sense of story, however, save for his brief misstep into big-studio territory with John Q. Unsurprisingly, he can always get the best out of his favorite actress -- and mother -- Rowlands, and the scenes in the present day with her and Garner are the best.

Which isn't to dismiss Gosling and McAdams: The former has proved his acting chops in dramas such as The Believer, but he's seldom been truly likable, as he is here. And McAdams, the comedic titular character in The Hot Chick and one of the eponymous Mean Girls, will likely open a lot of eyes with her earnest portrayal of a teenager in love.

The Alzheimer's plot line combined with flashbacks is strongly reminiscent of the British film Iris, but that was based on a true story and therefore played out a bit more brutally than this tale. It may be serendipitous timing that The Notebook opens so soon after Ronald Reagan's death brought Alzheimer's back into the public consciousness; those saddened by the ex-President's passing may find they have a newfound empathy for others facing a similar plight.

Sparks' novel was followed by a sequel titled The Wedding, but surprisingly, the big-screen version eliminates the hook that would most easily allow the follow-up to happen as a film. It makes this movie stronger from an emotional standpoint, though some accountant on the sixth floor of the New Line building may well be silently fuming that the franchise potential has been squandered.