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A dog-eared 'Notebook'

Cassavetes' new film is a modest improvement on the Nicholas Sparks sob fest.

June 25, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

The prose in Nicholas Sparks' romantic potboiler "The Notebook" isn't simply purple -- it's a violent purple, as blue-black and slobbery as a chow's tongue. A triumph of kitsch emotion and easy-does-it style, the book vaulted up bestseller lists on its publication in 1996, all but assuring a movie adaptation. The rights were sold to Hollywood and for years directors such as Steven Spielberg and Jim Sheridan toyed with the property, before Nick Cassavetes summoned the courage to go where few filmmakers of taste dare to go -- the three-hankie weepie. Ladies and gentlemen, start your sobbing.

Divided between the gauzy past and a somewhat flintier present, the story spans six decades of love between an Emersonian type named Noah Calhoun and a wealthy Southern belle, Allie Nelson. Played in the film by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams in flashback, and more movingly by James Garner and Gena Rowlands in the present, the pair first meet while she's on summer break. A flurry of quick-sketch scenes and puppy-love nuzzling ensue, along with a load of hooey, some awkward filmmaking and two unpersuasive lead performances. McAdams, last seen in "Mean Girls," and Gosling, a talented young actor who ripped the screen to shreds in "The Believer," look good in period skivvies, but their passion is too bridled, their actions too well-behaved. They never blow hot life into their characters.

Trouble with a capital "T" arrives in the form of Allie's parents (played by Joan Allen and, in a waxed mustache, David Thornton), who deem Noah unsuited to the task of cultivating their hothouse flower. The lovers part, tears fall and time marches inexorably on, though Cassavetes does pause, rather inexplicably, for a World War II interlude with exploding bombs and bodies. Years later, Noah has sprouted a beard and Allie has snared a prospect (James Marsden). Haunted by what might have been, Allie visits Noah for what she believes will be one final time. Too many beers and one thunderstorm suggest otherwise, leading to the story's big mystery. If you don't know what happens next you've either never seen a Hollywood movie or dipped into a paperback filled with throbbing passion and endless love.

Adapted by Jan Sardi and written by Jeremy Leven, the film turns out to be a modest improvement on the novel. In place of Sparks' barely there sense of place and psychology, and wall-to-wall platitudes ("He'd learned to enjoy simple things," he writes of Noah), the filmmakers attempt to fashion a backdrop with a little actual bite. The results are generally toothless -- the film's honeyed vision of race borders on the obscene -- but there's a real attempt to place the characters in context, a material world rather than a greeting-card tableau. Cassavetes isn't much of a director and he never settles on a mood, which he seems intent on ruining with hiccups of goofiness. But there's an underlying humanity to his scenes, a sense that movies are made by people for other people.

That's never truer than in the final scenes with Garner and Rowlands. By then the messiness of the past has been neatly resolved and the story's minimal mystery finally revealed. Alone in a sick room with Allie, Noah -- now rheumy-eyed and stooped, his hands trembling and face opened wide with wonder -- pours out his heart. It's a breathtaking image of a man clutching at what gave his life meaning and completely heartbreaking, although perhaps not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. An unsettling consequence of growing up with the movies is watching beloved stars decline, seeing these heavenly bodies fade. One of the promises old movies make us is that its stars will remain untouched by age, impervious to the passing of time -- it's a promise that new movies like this must inevitably break.


'The Notebook'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexuality

Times guidelines: Adult themes, war violence

Ryan Gosling...Noah Calhoun

Rachel McAdams...Allie Hamilton

James Garner...older Noah

Gena Rowlands...older Allie

James Marsden...Lon

New Line Cinema presents a Gran Via Production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Nick Cassavetes. Writer Jeremy Leven. Adaptation Jan Sardi. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Producers Mark Johnson, Lynn Harris. Director of photography Robert Fraisse. Production designer Sarah Knowles. Editor Alan Heim. Music Aaron Zigman. Costume designer Karyn Wagner. Casting Matthew Barry, Nancy Green-Keyes. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.

In general release.

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