Every day, Noah (Garner) visits a lonely lady named Allie (Rowlands), who resides in the same nursing home and is suffering from Alzheimers. Noah reads Allie passages from a notebook he keeps, of a love story he holds dear to his heart. The story rouses Allie’s imagination more than any pill or doctor ever could. As Noah reads from the notebook, the images of the story, featuring two young lovers (McAdams and Gosling) through their trials and tribulations, appear as a part of a puzzle that Ally anxiously tries to figure out.
Based on Nicholas Sparks’s best selling novel, “The Notebook” isn’t your standard romantic movie fare. Sure, you still get the requisite tears and swoon for your buck, and in a nice, sweet package, too. But this adaptation is a little more odd than it lets on, due to the interesting filmmaking pedigree found all over the production.
The film is directed by Nick Cassavetes, who is the son of legendary filmmaker John Cassavetes, of “Faces” and “A Woman Under the Influence” fame. The elder Cassavetes typically employed an improvisational acting style in his films, in search of realism and truth behind drama. While Nick has enjoyed a decent directorial career so far (“She’s So Lovely,” “Unhook the Stars”), he’s always stuck to the script and kept away from aping his father’s vision. “The Notebook” is a rapturous southern-fried romance, unfurled by Sparks in a heavily melodramatic way, with big movements and a keen eye for sentimentality. Cassavetes’s “Notebook” is no stranger to cornball acts of affection, but the filmmaker also makes a curious choice and lets his two younger stars, McAdams and Gosling, often find the heart of the scene by themselves, through passionate improvisation.
To be honest, the effect is interesting, but also deeply unsettling. Traditionally, romantic movies of this nature feature a highly controlled type of chest thumping and tragedy, which squeezes audience reactions tightly through such manipulation. “Notebook” chooses its moments of greatest conflict as opportunities for Gosling and McAdams to freely go after each other, either screaming over each other’s lines or completely stumped for dialog. Cassevetes is going for the honesty inside the young lovers’ passions, but the two actors are mismatched in the improv arena. McAdams (“Mean Girls”) brings a bright spark to this movie, and truly delivers a breakthrough performance as a young woman trapped in a privileged life, but desiring someone below her class. Her scenes alone carry the flashback section of the film, with the actress perfectly capturing the frustrations of choosing between an easy life or a life that feeds the soul.
Gosling (“The United States of Leland”) is bigger trouble. Awfully fond of his Brandoesque brood and method approach to performance, the young actor has trouble stepping out from behind his mumbles and blank stares to really register with his character. Similar to Brad Pitt’s turn as the hunky man-of-the-land in “Legends of the Fall,” Gosling is stuck between playing up the Fabio romance novel cover elements of the character with his own idiosyncratic ideas of conveying desire and despair. The two performance approaches do not intermingle, at least with Gosling (Pitt made it work), who needs to find a director who will explore his quizzical personality a little more deeply. Cassevetes is all too comfortable with Gosling brooding his way around the frame; barely registering on the radar the way McAdams does with a simple inhale.
The real two joys of the film are Garner and Rowlands (Nick’s real life mom), though their section of the film is fairly small. Cassavetes uses this time well, lightly revealing the reason for Noah’s visits as the film rolls out, and keeping a tight concentration on these two glorious veterans of the film business. If it weren’t for a simple one-minute exchange of dialog and declaration of love and commitment between these two actors near the end of the film, “The Notebook” wouldn’t resonate at all. That says a lot about veteran star power.Rating: B