Flashback Fridays: "The Notebook" turns 10
"The Notebook" turns 10 this week, and its assault of cheese has not abated. For a decade now, this adaptation of a typical Nicholas Sparks fairy tale has become the standard by which all mush-ridden date flicks are judged.
First released in 2004, Nick Cassavetes's attempt at a time-lapsing romance actually opened at #4 at the box office. But back in a time when movies were still given the chance to survive by word of mouth the film managed to gain an audience and gross over $81 million and go on to sell 11 million DVDs.
If one function of the cinema is to give body and motion to our dreams, then "The Notebook" is one of the most popular personifications of what love is for the adolescent, dreamy-eyed romantic or even the tragically delusional. Simply put, it's naive and beyond cheesy.
The story itself is classic Sparks fodder. For those who are lucky enough not to know, the storyline involves an elderly man named Duke (James Garner) at a nursing home narrating a tale of lost love to a patient played by Gena Rowlands. He shares from his notebook a story that begins in 1940 when a country boy named Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling), falls for a Southern belle named Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams). Of course her parents forbid her from copulating with a peasant and they ruin their fun. Noah is soon shipped off to fight in World War II and by the time he returns Allie is engaged to a Ken doll named Lon Hammond (James Marsden). Oh how will these two star-crossed lovers ever overcome their obstacles?
While many of its contemporaries have long ago been condemned to the dusty corners of forgotten DVD shelves, "The Notebook" has been able to retain a mass popularity. Few people have not seen or not heard of it. From personal experience, 9 out of every 10 girls I've met over the last decade know about the movie or even consider it a favorite. It's not difficult to see why. The film and book essentially celebrate every corny fantasy a love lorn high schooler has ever conjured up. It's like a seance of every diary entry ever written by a depressed 15-year-old who daydreams about being liked by someone.
It's not hard to understand the film's appeal for the soft hearted. Certain scenes still make the skin crawl. There's the moment where Noah invites Allie to dance with him on an empty street at night, featuring very wooden acting by Gosling and Betty Boop-style squeeks from McAdams. Or the scene where the couple cavorts by the sea with McAdams flapping her arms like a bird before falling into Noah's arms, passionately kissing him and saying "now say you're a bird too." There's even the obligatory, "Titanic"-style scene where Noah shows off his "poor guy" coolness by barn dancing in front of Allie with some local African Americans in the shady part of town. At least Marx would give the scene a thumbs up for blurring class barriers.
Truth be told, part of the film's lasting appeal is that Cassevetes knows how to position a camera. He films terrible dime novel romance well. Consider the famous scene in the rain where Noah and Allie row on a boat, confessing their continuing love for each other years after their brief affair. The cinematography by Robert Fraisse has nice tones and the score by Aaron Zigman has the kind of brass-fused, delicate atmosphere reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's work in the 1990s in films like "Sleeping With The Enemy" and "Indecent Proposal." But the acting and writing lack any depth, passion or emotional punch. When Gosling tells Allie "it still isn't over," he doesn't come across as a man inflamed by real desire, instead he mumbles the lines like an actor placed in a scene to recite a dead line.
Most if not all of the characters lack a natural air. Instead they feel like calculated cartoons reciting what we always expect in these movies. Poor Marsden really has no other purpose other than to smile and look like that guy the girl you like wants instead of you. Gosling also plays this role but as the moodier, "rebellious" type. There's little doubt that thanks to this movie, millions of girls everywhere now daydream with meeting their own evocation of Noah and his promises of, well, nothing much except lots of making out and sex after arguing in the rain. His one great achievement in the story is that he rebuilt an old house to make it nice again. Screen Junkies have captured it all in their brilliant honest trailer for the movie (web link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Gv-AMiofEI)
This is not to say, of course, that romance in the movies is always bad. This writer confesses to at one time having been a little romantic before tasting a few, bitter cups of reality. The more passionate, memorable alternative to "The Notebook" could possibly be Maria Luisa Bemberg's 1985 Oscar-nominated film "Camila." Based on a true story, it tells the tale of an infamous 19th century affair between an Argentinian socialite and a country priest. Their romance was such an upfront to the culture of their times that they become renegades chased after by the authorities. It's a feverish, epic tale that shames the watered-down corn of "The Notebook."
But audiences love to be swept away into the netherworld of Valentine's Day pipe dreams. Like John Grisham before him, Nicholas Sparks has now become a name overshadowing a specific genre of filmmaking. If Grisham was the overlord of the legal thriller, Sparks is the dark lord of date flicks. Joining "The Notebook" are "Dear John," "The Last Song" and "The Lucky One." All of them featuring essentially the same plot recycled, rehashed and remodeled to make the lonely and broken hearted believe that gorgeous people can live great love stories spanning decades, thunderstorms and olympic bed romps.
Ten years later and "The Notebook" still haunts modern cinema. Try as he might, even our Opinion Editor, who is currently living in his own version of a Sparks bestseller, tries to convince me of the merits of this film. Love it or hate it, it left its mark.