Notebook, The (2004) ** 1/2
Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Written by Jeremy Leven, adapted by Jan Sardi from the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Photography, Robert Fraisse. Editing, Alan Heim. Music, Aaron Zigman. Production design, Sarah Knowles. Produced by Mark Johnson & Lynn Harris. Cast : Ryan Gosling (Noah Calhoun), Rachel McAdams (Allie Hamilton), James Garner (Duke), Gena Rowlands (Allie Calhoun), James Marsden (Lon), Kevin Connolly (Fin), Sam Shepard (Frank Calhoun) and Joan Allen (Anne Hamilton) A New Line release. Running 121 minutes. PG-13.
It is obvious that more and more movies, many of them summer fare, are made for audiences of (mostly) males, from teens to twenty-something. Too many of those products are idiot flicks : action, specials effects, spectaculars, sex interruptus or not, and so on.
Someone had the bright idea of going back to the romance films that were so popular in earlier days--and were called two, three or four handkerchief movies—with “The Notebook.” The director is a son of the famous maverick John Cassavetes and J.C’s wife Gena Rowlands who here plays an older woman with Alzheimer’s disease.
The film adapts a Nicholas Sparks novel said to be a best-seller. I don’t know it, as I don’t read best-sellers. These seldom make good films, while --not paradoxically – many a mediocre book has become a fine movie.
The Cassavetes Junior picture begins on June 6, 1940 and goes on to the early post-WWII years. In a small North Carolina town (filmed in South Carolina) Noah (Gosling), a working class (lumberyard) fellow catches a glimpse of 17-year old Allie (McAdams) the daughter of a wealthy couple.
It is blitz-love for Noah, and soon for Allie. He performs daredevil feats to get a date with her. Some amusing scenes of the couple follow but they soon get clichéd as well as silly, as, for instance, when Noah talks Allie into stretching out in mid-street by a traffic light. The alibi for this idiocy is no doubt the tiny number of cars locally. But ‘taint cute. More young-love clichés follow.
At some early point we (and Allie) meet Noah’s father Sam Calhoun (Sam Shepard) with whom the young man lives in their most dilapidated house. Dad and son get on famously. Sam is a book and music lover, undoubtedly well-educated. He plays no substantial role in the story, but clearly he is there to bring class to Noah. He also brings tolerance: we see him, his boy, and Allie participate in a black buck-and-wing dance. What more can you ask for?
Allie’s filthy rich dad is a vague fellow, sports a ridiculous, caricatural mustache, yet seems to be nice guy. Mom (Anne) is high-society with a vengeance. Oh those outdoor dinners for rich friends, and the bevy of servants, black of course, like the limo chauffeur who drives Allie around.
The couple seems to tolerate their child’s friendship with low-class Noah, but when that relationship becomes an affair, Allie is sent packing to the (then) exclusive Sarah Lawrence College. Mom shouts about Noah: “He is nice, but trash, TRASH, not for you!” There are no references to the war in Europe, but after Pearl Harbor Noah immediately joins the army. He keeps writing Allie, but her mother intercepts and hides the letters.
Several years later–I’ll skip details—Allie is about to marry Lon (James Marsden) whom she met when he was a wounded officer while she, still in college, was also a volunteer assistant nurse. Lon is handsome, well connected, the scion of a wealthy family… and from the South. (Curiously, hardly any of the many Southerners in the movie have a Southern accent!) But then there’s a meeting with back-from-the-war Noah. Whom will she marry now, Lon or Noah? I will not disclose anything else and spoil things for you.
I must reveal, however, that from the start there are two movies-in-one in “The Notebook.” Many, many years after the above, Noah, now called Duke and being treated for heart attacks, is in a nursing home where Allie, now played by
Gena Rowlands is a victim of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
She does not recognize Noah who has managed to keep her company while reading to her a sort of journal of their past life. He is played, quite pathetically, by James Garner. The actor can do no wrong, but then, in this film we lose the familiar Garner, that great, laid-back character who more often than not deserves grand prizes for his cool performances.
At the same time, the picture –which goes on for far too long—can distract and confuse you. Queried, some viewers believe that Noah is meeting Allie after decades of “no see.” But then, the credits for Mrs. Rowlands state “Allie Calhoun,” which goes with somewhat strange details such as a large group of visitors at the nursing home imploring Noah to come home.
The film has its share of question marks. Some examples. By the post-war days, when Allie and Noah meet again he’s been building a dream-house for her. Why? When Anne (Allie’s) mother brings her a packet of hidden letters-from-the-front, why had she saved them? There is an outrageously dumb scene when Anne drives her daughter to the local lumberyard in order to point out a worker with whom she had been in love once upon a time.
Throughout the movie the camera cuts to beautiful, often splendid shots of nature in many shapes. For some, this is “On Golden Kitsch,” but I confess that those scenes come as welcome intermissions.