The Notebook

Year: 2004
Studio: New Line
Director: Nick Cassevetes
Writer: Jeremy Leven/Jan Sardi/Nicholas Sparks
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Marsden, Joan Allen, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Sam Shepard

This is one of those movies that has a reputation far wider than the number of people who've seen it. Every time some story needs a quintessential chick flick moment where some heroine sits in bed with a tub of ice cream drowning her sorrows The Notebook is a perennial go-to.

I'm not sure, but I also think it might have been the movie that launched the very concept of the Nick Sparks cinematic universe, movies that have creative construction, common elements and brand positioning as definitive as any Transformers or Marvel movie.

Director Nick Cassavetes also might not have known at the time, but the shot of a scruffy, bearded Ryan Gosling and Rachal McAdams kissing in the pouring rain would become like the Nike Swoosh or the Apple logo for lush, slightly sexy and romantic weepie drama.

But what's most curious about The Notebook is that for all its reach in pop culture, it trades on some very creaky old tropes. How many times have we seen the hero so determined to win the hand of the leading lady that he stages an increasingly wacky series of stunts and tactics to convince her to go out with him (stuff you can get away with if you're as shabby/sexy as Ryan Gosling but which would have any woman with half a brain calling the cops in real life)?

It's got everything that makes an effective romance - the Romeo and Juliet motif of the lovers who can never be because of class lines, love that survives over decades and an Americana-tinged sense of old time, small town visuals and values. I can't remember if there was a scene of townsfolk sitting next to a lake to watch Fourth of July fireworks or if everything about the story simply makes me think of such an image, but that says something about Cassavetes' command over the tone.

When Noah (Gosling) finally does win the heart of Allie (McAdams), they spend a blissful summer falling deeper and deeper in love in the southern hamlet where she's come to stay with her rich family, but as soon as you see the way Allie's purse-lipped mother (Joan Allen) looks at Noah you can imagine the entire story until at least the second act in your mind.

Years after going their own ways, the Second World War breaks out and Allie falls in love with Lon (James Marsden), a wounded soldier who makes a successful business and offers Allie a wonderful life of comfort and care. But when Noah comes back into her life in the form of a newspaper article about the house he always promised her he'd finish (and in which they lost their virginity to each other), all the old feelings bubble up and threaten the life she's planned for herself.

They reconnect as friends but it soon becomes about the race in Allie's heart between stability and passion, and no matter how cynical you are and how honey-tinged the movie treats it all, Sparks has always been more about robust romantic concepts than prose, and it's hard not to get caught up.

Less successful is the framing device where an elderly man (James Garner) reads the story of Noah and Allie to a woman suffering from dementia (Gena Rowlands) in an idyllic lakeside hospital where she lives. It's not very clear from the story how surprisng the reaveal about their true identities is – the only part you're really not sure about is who the old man is, and the neat simplicity of the rest of the story could have been just as strong if the whole subplot had been cut.

It just feels a bit like Sparks (in the novel) didn't want a pat ending where they ride into the sunset and live happily ever after, addressing the age old chestnut about romantic drama that the sun comes up the next day, new hardships arise and life goes on (albeit in a way that has as much Sparksian romance as possible).

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