There was a time when Hollywood snatched up nearly every popular (or even moderately popular) novel and turned it into a movie. Occasionally, these films actually had some connection to their literary sources. These were known as the “good old days.” And it is in this spirit that director Nick Cassavetes and screenwriter Jeremy Leven (Alex and Emma) bring us the film version of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. Which makes one rightly question just how good those “good old days” actually were.
I haven’t read Sparks’ novel — and on the strength of this film, I think I’ll keep it that way. Because the movie is as slow and soapy as they come, and that’s not to mention that it’s bogged down by a clumsy contrivance that might work on the printed page, but which comes across as awkward on the big screen. They say The Notebook runs 121 minutes. It seemed far longer than that.
Before I go any further, let me note that this is exactly the kind of movie my mother will like — and that’s precisely what The Notebook aims to be. From that standpoint, anyway, the film can be judged as a kind of success. And that’s a perfectly valid aim, I suppose. And I freely concede that this is just what the doctor ordered for those of you needing a fix of 1950s Ross Hunter soap opera. Otherwise, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine why anyone would want to see The Notebook. For that matter, I was hard-pressed to imagine — during those long patches of ennui that swept over me while watching this film — why anyone wanted to make it, either.
The Notebook is basically a simple boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks-in-love-with-rich-girl story — complete with a disapproving mother, rampant misunderstandings, letters that never get read, and time out for a little annoyance known as World War II. And while this would be serviceable material on its own terms, it’s here decked out with a framing story that attempts to add some sense of consequence to what’s otherwise trite and true. In other words, this tactic adds weight, not weightiness.
The framing story concerns an elderly gent name of Duke (James Garner) who reads the notebook of the film’s title –and its story of a romance — to an elderly woman named Allie (Gena Rowlands, who is, coincidentally, the director’s mother). Allie suffers from what the film calls “senile dementia.” Now, it just so happens that the old gal has the same name as the girl in the story … and where do you suppose this is going? Yes, exactly.
Yet for some reason, Cassavetes and Leven seem to think we’ll all be blindsided by the final revelation. No doubt this is part and parcel of the book, which desires to be both a romantic novel and an existential reminder that no matter what, you’re going to end up on a cold slab before it’s over. Thank you, Mr. Sparks, for that sunny ray of belabored obviousness.
The great shame here is that all this is housed in a beautiful — albeit slow-moving — production complete with good performances from Garner, Rowlands, Ryan Gosling (Murder by Numbers) and Rachel McAdams (the meanest of the Mean Girls). The ultra-romanticized view of the rural South in the 1940s is beautifully realized, while the image of Allie (McAdams) and Noah (Gosling) gliding in a boat through a flock of swans, white ducks and white geese is almost impossibly gorgeous.
All in all, though, The Notebook is just too dramatically neutered to add up to much. It will, no doubt, find a ready audience with fans of the book and those wanting an almost-reactionarily old-fashioned movie (from a box-office point of view, the latter are too often the same folks who will wait for the video.) As for the rest of you: You might find The Notebook restful.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke