When it comes to old-fashioned love stories, The Notebook is a mixed bag. A sort of Romeo-and-Juliet story (had the protagonists survived to retirement, that is), it manages to draw both tears and derision from the audience.
Based on the acclaimed bestseller by Nicholas Sparks, and directed by Nick Cassavetes (John Q), The Notebook opens in an idyllic seaside nursing home where an elderly man reads from a faded notebook to an Alzheimer’s-afflicted woman. His words bring to life the story of Allie and Noah (Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling), a young couple who spend one magical southern summer falling in love, only to be separated by conniving parents and a world at war.
Though she is a wealthy debutante and he a mill worker (thanks to exceptional acting on the parts of McAdams and Gosling, these characters don’t inspire quite as much eye-rolling as one might expect), the two fall in love. Circumstances and schemers drive them apart, but both continue to be haunted by memories of each other. When Noah returns home from World War II years later, he drowns himself in his life’s work only to find it isn’t enough to drive his life’s love from his heart.
On one hand, this story manages to strike nearly all the right romantic notes. Noah pursues a reluctant Allie with a single-minded charm any girl would be hard-pressed to resist. Gosling offers us the kind of leading man all too scarce in today’s cinema–a man who uses his eyes and smile rather than excessive prattle to make his intentions known, so that when he does speak, the electricity is palpable.
And Allie’s lovelorn sighing endears her to the audience as much as to Noah. Okay, so “Say I’m a bird. Now say you’re a bird” isn’t exactly on par with “I would I were thy bird…Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing,” but it gets the point across that, no matter what form the two were to take, they would find each other.
As far as the all-important romantic obstacle goes, Allie’s mother (Joan Allen) proves as worthy an adversary as any Capulet to their love. By intercepting a year’s worth of letters detailing Noah’s undying devotion, she guides her daughter into the arms of a wealthy, handsome, and, in her eyes, more suitable fiancé.
On the other hand, the film adds a few extra bars that distract from the beauty of the whole. The script alternates between gratuitous sex scenes and arguments whose intensity doesn’t match their cause. Apparently Allie and Noah’s sweaty clinging and hysterical bickering are supposed to covey the idea that this is the “real thing,” but it doesn’t quite reach that sublime elevation. (Not that the “real thing” doesn’t include a little sweat and hysteria–just that it usually also includes something more.) Perhaps if we could have gotten a look at those hundreds of letters Noah wrote to Allie, we’d have a better idea of why, seven years later, he hasn’t managed to find another chirpy drama queen to take her place.
And certain departures from genre clichés, while admirable, defy reality. One finds it hard to believe, for example, that Allie’s fiancé would accept the information that his bride-to-be has spent the weekend in bed with another man with an attitude of, “Well, good luck with that; let me know if doesn’t work out.” And as for Noah’s other woman, no girl on earth is so magnanimous as to breathily offer, “She’s sensational,” in reference to her rival.
However, certain harlequin elements must be taken as par for the course, though they are almost guaranteed to earn the scorn of ivory-tower critics. True, it can be irritating when characters fail to take the simple, rational actions that could spare them massive amounts of heartache–Allie could have taken a trip down to see Noah sometime during her four years in college. Noah could have traveled to Sarah Lawrence to find out why his letters were going unanswered. But then again, Romeo could have paid Friar Laurence a visit to see if he missed anything before shaking off the yoke of inauspicious stars…
Without giving away too many of the minorly surprising twists in the plot, what The Notebook eventually comes to offer is the parallel stories of two loves: The impetuous passion of youth and the caring tenderness of long years of commitment. And it is this progression–along with exceptional acting and breathtaking production–that finally redeems the film, making it a beautiful cinematic rendering of the words, “in sickness and in health.”
So sure, The Notebook’s story of first love tends toward the histrionic and self-important. But if that’s case, perhaps Cassavetes, like Shakespeare, simply knows how to give the people what they want.
–Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.