There's a sentimental streak in Americans that goes wild over the kind of movies that Variety calls 'weepies.' And it's not just movies. We see it in the love for Thomas Kinkaid paintings, with their treacly visions of an American landscape that exists only in the fantasy world of paperback romances. We see it in the insistence on publicly singing "God Bless America" at every possible opportunity. We see it in letters to the editors of papers around the country that equate support for government policies with patriotism, and opposition or questioning as treason. Frankly, I blame the teachers who never bothered to communicate the complexity of life and the world.
But the teachers aren't responsible for the film "The Notebook;" it comes from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, with a screenplay by Jeremy Leven and direction by Nick Cassavetes. Set in South Carolina, the film takes place over sixty years, and is framed by a story that's read by an elderly man, Duke (James Garner) to an old woman with Alzheimer's, Allie Calhoun (Gena Rowlands) in a nursing home. He reads of a poor young man, handsome and wild, played by Ryan Gosling, who courts a wealthy young woman, played by Rachel McAdams. They fall in love, he goes off to serve in World War II, but when he returns she has found someone else - a wounded soldier whom she nursed back to health. It helps that the wounded soldier, played by James Marsden, is the scion of a wealthy Charleston family and someone her mother (Joan Allen) thinks is more appropriate for her. "Why didn't you write me?" she asks Gosling, infuriated at his thoughtlessness. "I wrote you every day for a year!" he says, leading to a revelation that we have seen coming for an hour.
Gosling, whose dream has been to restore a wreck of an old mansion with a small inheritance left by his father (Sam Shepard) finally meets up again with McAdam, just before she is to be married to Marsden. I will not burden you with the details of what happens then, nor will I reveal the identity of the elderly couple. You will have to figure that out for yourself. But if the movie takes hold of you, please be sure to bring enough tissues - I would suggest a hand towel - to the theatre.
It's easy to dismiss a film like "The Notebook" as a cliché raised to the nth power. But the performances are good enough to nearly compensate for the bathetic story. Old pro Garner is his usual secure, serene self, and Gosling and McAdams are delicious as the young lovers, with Gosling, particularly, showing a strong personality that carries much of the film. But Rowlands somehow cannot bring herself to look 80, which throws much of the story out of whack; and Joan Allen, tight-lipped and petty as McAdams's mother, is just one-dimensional. No doubt there will be a great split in reactions to this film; whether it will be along the lines of taste, gender or politics remains to be seen.