[box cover]

The Notebook

The Notebook (2004) has a single goal: to prod your tear ducts. It's very, very good at this task. Whether it's is good in any other respect is a bit more complicated. Yes, the movie — based on the hit Nicholas Sparks novel — is gorgeously photographed, and features strong performances by Rachel McAdams, James Garner and James Marsden. One could even argue it has that elusive, emotion-tugging x-factor that studio executives call "heart." But if you go in armed with a critical axe of even slight sharpness, the film splits at the spine. It's dragged down by a droopy male lead, narration that would sound lavender in a bad airport paperback, a score the filmmakers lean on like a car horn, and an insulting, inconsistent approach to Alzheimer's. The opening credits play over cinematography that's worthy of one of your nicer cigarette ads: A man sculls on a lake at sunrise, sending a flock of birds soaring straight over the window of a blank-faced old woman (Gena Rowlands). It's gorgeous — but it's also so over-photographed, so Land's End-catalog-on-crack, that you know what follows is going to be a romance so highly pitched it falls just short of sci-fi. To wit: Rowlands — despite being in a state of dementia so advanced she can't recognize her own husband, children, or life story — is immaculately dressed and ready to receive visitors. Soon, James Garner shows up to read to her out of a mysterious, hand-written notebook. From there, Garner narrates the story-within-a-story: the star-crossed tale of how Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and Allie Walker (McAdams) loved and lost in the 1940s. McAdams (Mean Girls) is mesmerizing as spitfire Allie; unfortunately, she's fighting for attention in an overblown "improbable romance" that viewers either buy into or really, really don't. Take her wealthy mother (Joan Allen) — an ice queen so evil she might as well be twirling her husband's silly mustache as she utters such groaners as "That child's got too much spirit for a girl of her circumstance." Meanwhile, Gosling's laid-back Noah is a dullard, even when bearded and drunk with grief. When he's competing for McAdams' affections against James Marsden — who does a Clark Gable turn as Allie's funny, charming, supportive, understanding, cultured, smart, wealthy fiancé — The Notebook becomes one of those movies where every other man in the film, including Garner, seems better-suited for Allie than the actual guy the movie wants you to root for. And poor Rowlands is all over the place — seemingly unable to figure out how to play a demented old woman. The script has her forgetting her entire life, yet effortlessly following the text of Garner's story. A final bedside scene (which feels like a last-minute, tacked-on reshoot, but apparently wasn't) reduced the audience to sobs in the cineplex — but it feels like a false ending to a movie that tells us that hard medical facts can be conquered by the power of a good story. That's a power the bullcorn-choked Notebook, despite its strengths and obvious good will, simply does not possess.

*          *          *

New Line's "Platinum Series" DVD is a fairly packed release with both anamorphic (2.35:1) and pan-and-scan transfers and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Extras are squarely aimed at the romance-novel crowd — included are two commentaries, one with director Nick Cassavetes (Rowlands' son) and another with author Sparks, plus 12 deleted and alternate scenes with optional Cassavetes commentary. There are also three mighty self-congratulatory featurettes — including "All in the Family: Nick Cassavetes" (12 min.), which tries to position Nick as his father John's actor-loving heir; "Nicholas Sparks: A Simple Story Well Told," a recounting of Sparks' sale of his first novel (6 min.); and "Southern Exposure: Locating the Notebook," which tours the film's South Carolina shooting locations (12 min.). There's also a featurette on "Casting Rachel and Ryan" (4 min.), a Rachel Adams screen test (3 min.), a theatrical trailer, and a promo for the overbaked soundtrack. Keep-case.
M.E. Russell

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