I have not read Nicholas Sparks' best seller The Notebook, but its appeal as a film project must have come from its many reminders of The Bridges of Madison County (1995): a lyrical romance with pastoral elements, imbued with a woman's point of view, exhibiting a rugged but sensitive man, and dealing with the intensity of new love as well as its legacy in older age.
The best part of this film is devoted to the youthful, across-the-tracks relationship between the struggling Noah (a sometimes comically expressionless Ryan Gosling) and the privileged Allie (luminous Rachel McAdams).
All the scenes devoted to the ups and downs of their union are rendered in pleasingly physical ways: on fairground rides, on a boat, in the rain. The thrill of erotic deferment in this love-match packs quite a wallop – even if, as with many points in this story, the facts of Allie's sexual development beyond Noah have to be fudged.
This story is juxtaposed with another, a framing device set in a home for the elderly, where the kindly Duke (James Garner) each day reads from his notebook the tale of Noah and Allie to the troubled and frail Mrs Nelson (Gena Rowlands).
It is easy to predict the twist revealed mid-way. From that point, the film devolves into schmaltzy scenes that raise far more problems than they can judiciously resolve merely with torrents of feel-good sentiment. The ending, in particular, is a risible version of Hollywood's everlasting and ever-suspect 'painless death' convention.
A curious bunch of talents has been assembled for this movie. The writers are Jan Sardi of Shine (1996) fame and Jeremy Leven, director of the underrated meta-romance Don Juan DeMarco (1995). Their previous works have usually taken the form of utopian fantasies that flirt ever so gingerly with issues of mental illness, depression, and the routine miseries of long lives.
Director Nick Cassavetes adds his own, cockeyed combination of gritty realism and wishful thinking into this soup. In the shadow of his father, John Cassavetes, he has been typed as a filmmaker with a salt-of-the-earth sensibility – his cameo here as an industrial worker in overalls recalls, for example, Peter Falk in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) – and a passionate belief in family values (not too many directors beyond Fassbinder so regularly cast their own mother).
Yet The Notebook is only marginally more controlled than his previous disaster, John Q (2002), which also tried to smear a New Age Vaseline over sensitive, serious issues. There is a strange, strained optimism in Cassavetes Jr's work (especially these last two films) that resembles nothing so much as the personal-assertion mantras of recovering addicts, hardly an uncommon strain in the Joe Esterhaz era.
There is also an uncomfortable sense in The Notebook that Cassavetes is cashing in on his family legacy – especially in the depiction of Noah and Allie as two people who always fight but are "crazy for each other". This tribute could have been touching, but it registers as rather unseemly, especially in the wake of the monumental misfire of She's So Lovely (1997) – not to mention the report at one time that he was planning to remake The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).
Worst of all, the moment where we see famous family snaps of John and Gena – only with Garner's face superimposed – has to be one of the most grotesque moments of exploitation in cinema history; even if, oddly, it has a far more successful precedent in the fictional Brando's gaze upon the photos of his real, youthful self in Leven's Don Juan DeMarco.
© Adrian Martin October 2004