(Originally published 2004)
Nick Cassavetes’ "The Notebook" is well-done, well-acted schmaltz, a beautifully shot melodrama that overcomes its contrivances by striking just the right romantic tone.
It’s chic and it’s stylish, a retro heartwarmer filled with likable characters whose story weaves around the lives of its two enormously charismatic young lovers. Their romance is threatened because of their class differences.
Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi based their screenplay on the dewy bestseller by Nicholas Sparks, and they did a fine job of it, too, especially considering the ripe cornucopia from which it sprung.
Taking a cue from Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Robert James Waller’s "The Bridges of Madison County," Cassavetes takes the bones of Sparks’ tale and elevates it to trash art.
His film is divided into two stories, with its core mystery allegedly hinging on how those stories will collide. Only the dimmest of bulbs won’t figure it out within the first five minutes, so it’s good news that the movie’s success doesn’t rely on it.
The film opens in a swank nursing home with the elderly Duke (James Garner) reading to the elderly Allie Calhoun (Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ mother), a handsome yet frail-looking woman suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The story Duke shares with her is a romance set in 1940s North Carolina between working-class Noah (Ryan Gosling) and the wealthy Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams), who share a summer romance that blossoms into fierce first love.
As summer fades into fall, that love is threatened as Allie prepares to go off to college in New York and her mother, Anne (Joan Allen), works overtime to sever their relationship. She believes her daughter can find a better man in a better social class, and she succeeds in busting Noah and Allie apart. Years later, Allie becomes engaged to the wealthy and movie star good looking, Lon (James Marsden), whose love for Allie is strong, but not exactly enough to satisfy her.
Indeed, on the eve of marriage, she seeks out Noah again, thus rekindling a romance that will promise to change her life forever if she has the courage to accept it.
All of this works better onscreen than its rote plot points suggest, particularly because of the unfailing charm of its talented cast. McAdams and Gosling are wonderful together--fresh and spontaneous--while Garner and the underused Rowlands make you pine for what can be lost in old age, and for what can be found.
"The Notebook" could have gone wrong for many reasons. One only needs to look at the trite adaptations of Sparks’ other works--"Message in a Bottle," "A Walk to Remember"--to see how. But Cassavetes, much like his father, the director John Cassavetes, knows about human relationships, he appreciates his actors, and that combination shows onscreen in the enormous respect he has for both.