In all my years of film-viewing, I have never prejudged any film, or made my mind up about a movie before seeing it...with one exception. Somehow, The Notebook became a fixation of scorn with me. I instantly dismissed it as a treacly love story where the "twist" was so obvious that I did wonder whether we were suppose to know it even before the thing started. I became infamous in my circle of mocking The Notebook, always speaking its name with a high squeal, pursing my lips to say "The Notebook, THE NOTEBOOK", mimicking the gaggle of girls who thought it the Citizen Kane of love stories, this brilliant epic story of romance that spans time and death itself.
I thought that if it was the Citizen Kane of ANYTHING, it would be as the Citizen Kane of chick flicks, not in terms of brilliance but in terms of how any "sweeping love story" post-2004 is measured against The Notebook (I have to say 2004 because as surprising as it is to many people, there were better love stories that were made long before avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were born, let alone working on The Notebook).
For years I obstinately refused to watch The Notebook, and my view that it was trash hardened, especially when I considered that The Notebook spawned more insipid prose from Nicholas Sparks as well as Sparks adaptations (Dear John, The Last Song, even if technically it was not the first adaptation of a Sparks piece of junk--that would be Message In A Bottle). Eventually, a copy of The Notebook became available through the public library. Seeing as how I flat-out refused to pay one red cent to see it (even if were via rental), it seemed the perfect opportunity to avail myself of this long-despised work. Now I was ready to judge the film on its own merits.
I find my instincts were absolutely right.
Most of The Notebook is flashback to the 1940s. It's the summer, and Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) is enjoying the carnival when in sweeps Noah Calhoun (avant-garde actor Gosling). He's a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, she's the daughter of privilege. Obviously, in very short time Noah sweeps Allie off her feet, and despite the fact that they argue over nearly everything, they have a passion that overwhelms them. Even though they have only one thing in common (I figure it's love, but given how these two behave one would think it was a fierce sexual attraction), Allie and Noah do make an effort to win her parents over.
Big Daddy John Hamilton (Frank Thorton) and Big Momma Anne (Joan Allen) tolerate what they think is a summer fling, but when Allie stayed out late one night with Noah, they have the police look for her. His buddy Fin (Kevin Connolly) warns them, catching them just as they are about to give themselves over to physical passion (I was surprised they hadn't already). Allie and Noah fight, and they break up. Both regret how they split, and Noah writes Allie every day for a year, but gets no response (because Big Momma keeps the letters from her daughter).
Allie gets to college and Fin and Noah move to Atlanta, but that pesky September 11th...I mean, Pearl Harbor gets in the way. Noah and Fin enlist, Allie turns to nursing. Fin dies, and Allie is courted by former patient Lon Hammond (James Marsden). He's rich, he's handsome, he's a Southerner, he's in love with Allie. Obviously, he's all wrong for her. Noah drowns his sorrow by rebuilding the plantation he bought thanks with money from his dad Frank (Sam Shepard) and a part-time girlfriend Martha Shaw (Jamie Brown). Allie quickly agrees to marry Lon, and Noah keeps repairing and rebuilding the plantation, claiming he wants to sell but never doing so.
Eventually, a newspaper article attracts Allie just as she's trying on her wedding dress. Like a moth to a flame, she goes to Noah. They talk, the fight, then she finally loses her virginity to him (and the sex must have been spectacular). Still, she is torn between her passion for Noah and her love for Lon. One can guess what the end is.
This whole story is written in a notebook, read to a woman slipping into dementia (Gena Rowlands) by an older man called Duke (James Garner). In a debatable twist, we find that this woman, one Allie Hamilton, has been read her own story and that Duke (not in the best of health himself) is....
The Notebook I think makes an effort to try to add a twist into this story primarily by having the older man called at first Duke, but it was obvious from the get-go that Duke and Noah were one and the same. As a result, what one is waiting for is for Allie to see she's Allie. Without minimizing the serious issue of dementia the older Allie must truly be out of it if she didn't make the connection between herself and the Allie of the story. In the middle of the story, we get a visit from Duke's children but the nurse tells her they are his, not hers. Whether this is a concession to her illness or an effort to try and keep the subterfuge I can only guess, but by this time if you haven't figured it out you haven't been paying attention.
Instead, you've been distracted by the physical beauty of McAdams and avant-garde actor Gosling. The Notebook is if nothing else a very lush picture, going for excessively beautiful and romantic imagery and settings (Robert Fraisse's cinematography is bathed in lush sunsets and geese or swans swimming in gentle swamps, and Aaron Zigman's score takes a stab at being soft , gentle, romantic).
Curiously, The Notebook (and perhaps Crazy, Stupid, Love) are the only concessions avant-garde actor Gosling has ever made to both his good looks and in showing a lighter side on screen. Avant-garde actor Gosling appears drawn to darker fare (The Believer, Half Nelson, Blue Valentine, Drive, The Ides of March) and I've wondered from time to time if this is as atonement for being in both The New Mickey Mouse Club and Young Hercules, in the belief that only by playing dark characters will he be taken seriously. I know he's a great actor, but I wasn't convinced he was Noah. Instead, avant-garde actor Gosling appeared a bit out of place in the romance, only coming alive when he's doing something dangerous (such as bullying Allie into agreeing to a date by dangling high above the carnival on the Ferris wheel) or when channeling anger.
McAdams is better suited to play at women wildly in love, given she's been taking these types of role in other films like The Time Traveler's Wife and The Vow. For me, I thought she came off as a bit whiny and indecisive (although perhaps if a woman has to choose between avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling and James Marsden, she might have to think long and hard about it). Speaking of Marsden, I think he was here to play a Sparks stock character: the love rival who never adds anything close to a threat to our lovers, and he appeared a bit blank. Connolly as the requisite best buddy didn't add much either except an almost peppy cheeriness to counterbalance Noah's somewhat more serious manner.
The best performance was from Allen (again, an underused actress in Hollywood). She doesn't overplay the evil woman keeping our lovers apart but is given a true motivation for her actions (although a hinting of this would have made the scene where she kept the letters from Allie less villainous). Nothing against Thornton, but director Nick Cassavetes should have told him to lose the mustache--I actually laughed when I first saw it. It looked comical and silly to where I wondered if Thornton fought the temptation to twirl it. It looked as if it came from another time (and given how Sparks' world view allows for happy Negroes dancing with the poor whites but even in the Twentieth Century blacks don't play a prominent role in his stories despite taking place in the South, perhaps the old-fashioned looking mustache isn't so out of place).
Lest I forget, Garner and Rowlands were on the whole good in portraying a couple who are slowly losing each other to illness and death (another Sparks hallmark). My only question is how you get a dark-haired older man like Garner from a golden-haired boy like avant-garde actor Gosling.
All of the flaws in The Notebook come from the source material, and while Jeremy Leven's screenplay (adapted by Jan Sardi) went out of its way to make the story romantic (what with the very fast courting by Noah of Allie and even faster acceptance of Lon by Allie) it still was far too long at a little over two hours. While it tried to bring a sense of love that is fading with I'll Be Seeing You as a theme, a better song would have been Do It Again. After they consummated their love, the only thing I could hear in my mind was "Do It Again/I may cry No, No/but Do It Again".
There were things I wondered about that perhaps a film adaptation could have done better (I thought if Noah were smart, he would have used a pseudonym when writing to Allie) and made Allie's conflict between her love for Lon and Noah more intense.
I know a lot of people think The Notebook is a true passionate love story. I'm not averse to love stories (I reluctantly confess I come close to tears at Casablanca and The Way We Were) but my tolerance for sappy stories is a low one. The Notebook is one of those films that is declared romantic because it has such things as death, two mismatched lovers, and the ecstasy of first sex. Somehow, if they had been open with the 'twist' instead of trying for it I think The Notebook would have been a slightly better film. However, as much as The Notebook is embraced, I find that these love notes are badly written.