½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands
screenplay by Jeremy Leven, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks
directed by Nick Cassavetes
by Walter Chaw Ah, Nicholas Sparks. I once saw an interview with Nicholas Sparks in which he accused literary critics of envying his success, thus shedding light on the consistently bad reviews he's gotten throughout his career while failing to explain why he got terrible reviews for his debut novel as well. Nor does this explain how it is that someone who's barely literate himself could have understood his critics enough to feel offended--after all, Sparks's admirers certainly aren't reading the reviews. In fact, that movie executives appear to be among Sparks's biggest fans (The Notebook is the third faithfully awful adaptation of a Sparks opus--two more to go) says a lot about both movie executives and Sparks's books.
What it says depends of course on how much you enjoyed Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember--but if you like Sparks, you're not reading this review anyhow (or, at least, not understanding it) and have already written me an angry, inscrutable e-mail based on the star rating alone. The conundrum is that if you're following along all right, then you probably have a stray thought now and again and, consequently, can't like Sparks--meaning you're not going to be seeing The Notebook, meaning that I'm about to preach to the choir. The cast listing gives away the big twist so, as you haven't read the book having gotten this far (and as you're not going to see the film, anyway), I'm really not spoiling the movie by telling you that it begins with a framing story involving nursing home resident Noah (James Garner) reading a, yes, notebook to Allie (a howlingly awful Gena Rowlands, the director's mom) about a syrupy boy-meets-girl starring a young man named Noah (Ryan Gosling) and a young woman named Allie (Rachel McAdams). Noah is poor, Allie is rich; Noah is devil-may-care, Allie is just a little uptight. It's not every day that you see a movie based on a Billy Joel song, it just seems like it.
Allie's parents are evil southern plantation crackers who own Gone with the Wind-era slaves; Noah works in a gravel pit with his best friend Barney Rubble. Allie is a self-proclaimed "stupid woman" who's "cured" by a good lay (Gone with the Wind again), and Noah likes to read Walt Whitman to his dad (Sam Shepard). Allie is a ball of screaming and giggling; Noah is a confusion of winces and shirt-rending. The Notebook is like Tennessee Williams without heat, poetry, and insight--call it "Wax Cat on a Nice Cool Roof." The twist is that old Allie has Alzheimer's disease and sometimes needs the whitecoats to give her a Thorazine shooter to keep her from killing old Noah, making the last ten minutes of the film a little bit like Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor--which, though a magnificent film, was not a romance.
The Notebook finds young Noah and Allie getting wet a lot, floating around in a swamp populated with what looks like ten million ducks ("Do you want to feed them?" Noah asks; "I don't think that's a good idea," the audience whispers back), and, because this is still a Nicholas Sparks source, writing horrible letters to one another. James Marsden plays the all-around good guy fiancé who never has a chance, particularly as he meets-cute Allie while in a ridiculous body cast. Marsden was in WWII, ditto Noah, as if Allie would care. Oh yes, WWII makes a cameo appearance in this picture, just long enough to chastely dispatch of Noah's best friend, who didn't have a function before getting splattered and, in the interests of balance, doesn't have a function during or after, either.
But reserve your pity for the best pal's girlfriend (best friend of Allie), who disappears like magic when her boy eats Nazi steel. It's the fantasy, puerile and flip, of a girl who only exists when she's defined by a man (and Allie's evil mother (Joan Allen) has a surprise sympathy tale involving being defined by her men), who's some kind of nymphomaniac glad to make pancakes to "refuel" her spent man, who expresses her re-found freedom by painting bad expressionist landscapes topless. Men, on the other hand, are selfless carpenters. The Notebook is exclusively for folks who think that it's romantic to idealize the opposite sex in such a way as to render them completely one-dimensional and asinine--who haven't been in a relationship for so long (or ever) that this seems like love to them now. It's for people with such tin ears that the crap dropping out of Sparks's typewriter sounds like something that a human being has ever said to another human being. Originally published: June 25, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Aw crap, this is a pretty good DVD--New Line has once again called into question the reliability of that schoolyard proverb "you can't polish a turd." Take the deleted scenes section, during which optional commentator Alan Heim (who won a well-deserved Oscar for cutting All That Jazz) provides at once a master class in the editing process, roadmaps to uncensored nip-slips and plumber's crack from Rachel McAdams, and the most honest criticism(s) of the material in the entire package. It's recommended that you watch these elisions (12 in all, totalling 28 minutes) collectively, because there are throughlines to Heim's more or less continuous discussion concerning storytelling economy and MPAA politics; "I just wanted it to soar," he sighs of a "cathartic" sexual encounter between McAdams and Ryan Gosling that was relieved of its eroticism by the village elders-that-be, and he shows how bad blocking can not only throw unwanted exposition into relief, but also make footage unsalvageable in post.
The first of four featurettes, "All in the Family: Nick Cassavetes" (12 mins.), finds black widow Gena Rowlands once again saying her children grew up used to film equipment strewn all over the house (what Ray Carney calls "the Mickey Rooney, let's-put-on-a-show version" of the environment surrounding John Cassavetes) and meanwhile tries to sell Nick as some kind of legend-in-his-own-right, for good reason: he's the only filmmaker to score a box-office hit for New Line since Peter Jackson--no doubt they want him to feel welcome. But as laughable as it is (the adjective-heavy narration describes Nick's last film for New Line, the abominable John Q, as "a gritty, politically-charged, emotional thriller"), the piece endears us to its subject by focusing on his lack of pretentiousness. In "Nicholas Sparks: A Simple Story, Well Told" (7 mins.), Jamie Rabb of TimeWarner Books observes all-too-accurately of the eerily Jim J. Bullock-like Sparks that "Central Casting had sent us the perfect author." Recounting Sparks's overnight success (refuted by Sparks elsewhere on the disc) and a tragic past that seems to have rolled off him like water off a Stepford's back, this is strictly to give moony adolescents and desperate housewives something to watch besides The Notebook itself.
"Southern Exposure: Locating The Notebook" (12 mins.) contains many an interesting tidbit regarding the film's practical locations, courtesy location manager Steve Rhea, producer Mark Johnson, and others, but the fact that Jim Crow laws are addressed here and not within the movie itself reflects very poorly on The Notebook indeed. As someone with next to no knowledge of architectural history, I can't help but be fascinated by the notion of a "kit house," however, one such example of which--South Carolina's historic Black River plantation house--served as Noah's house in the film: ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalogue for $5,300, the palatial residence was assembled by regular schmos following a foldout set of instructions! (Amusingly, they didn't realize until they had finished that they built it back-to-front. Solution? Point the furniture in the opposite direction.) Completing the quartet, "Casting Rachel & Ryan" (4 mins.) claims that nine famous actresses and one Rachel McAdams auditioned for the part of Allie, but it's McAdams's audition tape--excerpted within but included in full as a separate viewing option--that is the real revelation: once her anachronistic fidgeting settles down, she knocks your socks off in a manner reminiscent of Naomi Watts's performance-within-a-performance in Mulholland Drive.
A trailer and soundtrack spot for The Notebook round out the flipper's video-based extras, which share the dual-layered side of the platter with a supple 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of the feature proper. (A disposable pan-and-scan transfer takes up the flipside.) Only a smattering of edge haloes (likely unintentional, i.e. a compression issue) cost the image top marks, though perhaps for the sake of being comprehensive I should warn that the cropped version of The Notebook looks oversaturated in comparison to the 16x9 alternative. A hotbed of inactivity up to and following the film's parenthetical WWII episode, the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX audio definitely covets much less attention than the video does. Proud Brooklynite Cassavetes kicks off his almost impenetrable stream-of-consciousness feature-length commentary by spilling the beans on the A-level talent (Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg) attached to the project before he came along, while Nicholas Sparks fills up a second yak-track by relating the bizarrely Hallmark-ready moments in his personal life that became fodder for his first best seller. Like the time he and his wife re-enacted their wedding complete with bride and groom attire for the benefit of his bride's ailing grandparents. Central Casting has sent us the perfect monologist. Originally published: February 15, 2005.