The films of John Cassavetes were often noted for their improvisational feel and impressive acting. Finding traces of his signature style in a mainstream Hollywood weepy may seem like a bit of a stretch, and yet it is precisely these qualities that prevent The Notebook (2004, directed by Cassavetes’ son, Nick) from sinking into the sentimental abyss that marred its source material. Adapted from a bestselling Nicholas Sparks novel (yes, this is the same man who gave us A Walk To Remember), The Notebook is the simple story of a privileged young woman who falls in love with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
Before the gag reflexes begin to kick in, I might hasten to add that the story has an unusual framework: it begins at a nursing home, where an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands) suffering from dementia is paid a visit by a man (James Garner) who offers to read her a story. As the film unfolds – mostly in amber-hued flashbacks to the 1940s – it becomes apparent that the older man and woman have a pivotal stake in the story being told.
The main action revolves around 17-year old Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams), a free-spirited young woman whose rebellious instincts are tempered by her strict, domineering parents. While summering in the town of Seabrook, Allie catches the eye of one of the local boys, a charismatic lumberyard worker named Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling).
Despite their wildly different backgrounds, Allie is drawn to Noah’s open and easygoing nature, and it is not long before the two become inseparable, much to the horror of her upper-crust family.
Eventually, Allie’s mother (Joan Allen, exhibiting her trademark steeliness) intervenes, insisting on an end to the romance and dragging her daughter back to the family home in Charleston. While Allie is reluctantly shipped off to university in New York, Noah languishes back in Seabrook, writing his beloved letters every day for a year. Thanks to Mrs. Hamilton, the letters go unread, and Noah decides to give up. Shortly thereafter, he enlists in the army and goes off to Europe to fight in the war.
Once the war ends, Noah, a beaten man, decides to put his all into building the dream house that he and Allie spoke of in their youth. His discovery of Allie’s engagement to a rich, handsome war veteran (James Marsden) only fuels his determination, and it is not long before the two cross paths again.
To be fair, the story is filled with enough clichés to sink the boat that Noah is seen doggedly rowing in order to vent the frustrations of his lost love. This has more to do with the source material than with anything else; Nicholas Sparks has not made a small fortune writing subtle meditations on human existence. The Notebook is a soapy, glossy melodrama that gives the audience what it wants and then some.
Taking this into consideration makes the performances of the lead actors all the more remarkable. Making a boat ride in a lake filled with swans seem like a true-to-life experience is a considerable challenge, and it is to the director and actors’ enormous credit that they actually pull it off. Ryan Gosling, who holds the dubious honor of having once shared the stage with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera on The Mickey Mouse Club, seems poised to handle the transition into more adult roles with aplomb. In the more overtly emotional role of Allie, Rachel McAdams gives a career-making performance, filling each scene she’s in with a warmth, energy, and spark reminiscent of, well, a young Gena Rowlands, who in turn shows she’s still a force to be reckoned with.
Without Gosling, McAdams, Rowland, and Garner, The Notebook could have easily dissolved into a syrupy mess. It is their conviction and vivacity that pulls it back to earth each time it teeters on the brink of sentimentality, and that ultimately makes it one of the year’s more enjoyable Hollywood delicacies.