© 2004 Ray Wong
THE NOTEBOOK aims at positioning itself as the counter-program to summer blockbusters filled to the brim with aliens, explosions and superheroes. From the sweeping wide shot of the opening credits, you know what you are getting. In a way, it is a simple story: boy meets girl and boy loses girl, and does the boy get the girl at the end?
Duke is an elderly man who practically lives at a nursing home by choice, keeping a mysterious platinum-haired woman company by reading her a story from a notebook.
The story, as Duke gently recites to her, is about Noah Calhoun and Allie Hamilton, two 17-year-olds who first meet at a county fair.
Throughout the summer, Noah and Allie’s cautious flirtation turns into a serious relationship, despite the objection of Allie’s mother. You see, Allie’s family is rich, and Noah is a poor boy without a bright future. Obstacles separate the young lovers. When Noah returns from WWII, Allie is already engaged to the handsome and “fabulously rich” Lon Hammond. Through convoluted plot machinations, Allie leaves her fiancé and finds Noah. Their fire is re-ignited. Unfortunately, Allie must now choose between the two men she loves.
While Leven’s (THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE) screenplay hints at suspense, the story is as predictable as a bowl of molasses: warm, gooey and extra sugary. There is really no reason to doubt the identities of Duke and the old lady, or where the story is going. Yes, there are some nice moments: Noah hanging on to the Ferris wheel coercing Allie to go out with him; lying in the street watching the traffic lights change; a romantic boat ride among a lake-full of white geese, a rain-soaked love scene… The problem is, these gorgeous moments feel prearranged, manufactured so impeccably that they feel artificial and cliché-ridden.
The inconsistency in character development also adds to the frustration. Noah comes off as a cocky rebel in the beginning, but he quickly turns into a taciturn, reserved man waiting for Allie to make the first move. Allie comes off as irresponsible, spoiled and inconsiderate. At times, I find Allie having more sparks with Lon than with Noah. That is not good if we are supposed to root for the latter.
The film is handsome through cinematographer Robert Fraisse’s lens -- a moving postcard of sorts -- as is the romantic score by Aaron Zigman. But it is so self-aware and it tries so hard to tug at the heartstrings that you feel manipulated. At times, the filmmakers deliver the sentimentality with a 2-by-4 with stilted dialog such as “The problem with you is that you don’t do what you want.” Rowlands’ character keeps saying to Duke, “It’s such a beautiful story, I wonder how it ends.”
Director Cassavetes’ (JOHN Q) capable but unremarkable skills cannot lift the film off its own sap. The editing is inconsistent, leaving holes in the story that make you feel like something is missing. For example, the WWII scenes are way too short and choppy that they become unintentionally funny. And the ending -- all I have to say is that they are trying too hard to make you cry.
What saves the film is the cast. Gosling (MURDER BY NUMBERS) surprises us as a romantic lead. His boyish charm as a 17-year-old matures well into the older and wiser Noah. McAdams (MEAN GIRL) also leaps successfully from comedy to dramatic lead. Her Allie is beautiful, spirited and passionate despite the character flaws. Rowlands exudes muted vulnerability, but playing a befuddled patient does not leave her too much to do. Garner (SPACE COWBOYS) shines as the gentle, charming but passionate Duke, anchoring the film with genuine emotion. Allen (THE CONTENDER) delivers a solid but slightly one-dimensional portrayal of Allie’s deceitful mother. With the story focusing on Noah, the other men in the film simply fade into the background -- Marsden (X-2) as Lon, Kevin Connolly (JOHN Q) as Noah's best friend Fin, and Sam Shephard (BLACK HAWK DOWN) as Noah’s father. Jamie Brown is a stand-out as Noah’s occasional lover Martha.
THE NOTEBOOK is a noble effort in bringing Sparks’ sentimental story to the screen. Fans of old-fashioned love stories and helpless romantics may find this familiar tale engaging, a true tear-jerker. Others may find better materials in similar fairs such as TITANTIC or IRIS.
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Joan Allen, James Marsden
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Writers: Jan Sardi, Jeremy Leven (based on novel by Nicholas Sparks)
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for alcohol, sexuality
Script – 3
Performance – 6
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 5
Production – 6
Total – 5.7 out of 10