FILM REVIEW: THE NOTEBOOK

By Michael Wilmington

Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

3 stars

"The Notebook," the movie version of Nicholas Sparks' 1996 best seller, may be corny, but it's also absorbing, sweet and powerfully acted. It's a film about falling in love and looking back on it, and it avoids many of the genre's syrupy dangers.

This picture, beautifully shaped and shot, filled with fine actors doing moving work, is based on Sparks' debut novel, a "Bridges of Madison County" sort of piece that unfolds in both the past and the present. In the past, two youngsters from different classes, Noah Calhoun and Allie Hamilton (Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams), fall madly in love. In the present, in a nursing home, an elderly man (James Garner) reads a story from a notebook to an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands) who doesn't remember him.

The director, Nick Cassavetes, is Rowlands' son. He handles his mother, and the other actors, with tenderness and humanity - and that's the secret strength of the movie, along with the tension and poignancy of the parallel stories.

As we watch past and present juxtaposed, one love blossoms and the other seems to fade, but both have to fight to survive. As the movie, with epic range and generosity, covers a six-year span in the 1940s, from Noah and Allie's first teenage meeting to a postwar resolution, we get swept up in their longing and passion.

Noah is a steadfast, smart, poor boy who likes to read and work with his hands. (Sam Shepard plays Noah's dad as a hip American Gothic type.) Allie is a lively, headstrong, overachieving, rich girl who loves to paint. They're both lookers, an ideal movie couple. But Allie's mother, Anne (Joan Allen), doesn't think so, and she turns into the villain of the piece, trying to keep the lovers apart and steering Allie toward a properly rich beau, Lon (James Marsden). Lon is a nice guy, which makes the conflict less obvious to figure.

Interwoven with this narrative is the present-time story, the sad tale of the two old people: Duke, who reads the story, and Allie, who listens (and who, we realize, suffers from Alzheimer's). That's a jarring real-life note. Schmaltz and old-fashioned romance almost always tend to affect us more deeply in the movies than in literature. But though this movie pales next to Bille August's devastating Alzheimer's film romance "A Song for Martin," I found myself brushing away a tear or two at the end.

That surprised me. Sparks can be a pretty predictable writer, and the last big movie inspired by his works was the treacly Kevin Costner romance "Message in a Bottle," one of those films you'd like to forget as soon as you leave the theater, but can't.

"The Notebook" is another story. If Clint Eastwood made a more believable romance of "The Bridges of Madison County" in 1995, Cassavetes does the trick here, too. Like his great filmmaking father John ("Faces," "A Woman Under the Influence"), the younger Cassavetes has a love for actors and performances that shines through every scene he directs - and here he has a wonderfully responsive cast.

Garner may be the ideal narrator for this type of story. His mix of strength, honest warmth and quiet irony drains Duke's words of any sentimentality. Rowlands reminds us of how great she was in "Woman," how nakedly and unguardedly she can project the most extreme or pitiable emotional states.

Allen plays the heavy just right, with a quiet conviction that makes you see and grasp her viewpoint - however intensely you disagree with it. And as the young lovers, Gosling and McAdams are both attractive and deep. Gosling is simple, bright and candid, and McAdams infuses young Allie with that radiant, breathlessly winning ingenue grace and charm that breaks hearts. We never have to wonder why Noah is falling for her.

McAdams is a real discovery, as wondrously adorable here as she was fiendishly mean, vain and funny in "Mean Girls" - or as surprisingly triumphant as she was in her awful debut comedy, "The Hot Chick," where she actually convinced us that she was Rob Schneider trapped in a cheerleader's body.

Cassavetes directs all these people - along with Marsden, Shepard and Kevin Connolly - with a real connection to the story's humanity and feeling. "The Notebook" will probably affect audiences who believe they're immune to this type of story. This film vaults past our defenses. We can see the characters falling and staying in love, feel the reasons. Garner and Rowlands, Gosling and McAdams give us that gift, and it's no small present.

"The Notebook"

Directed by Nick Cassavetes; written by Jeremy Leven (adapted by Jan Sardi), from the novel by Nicholas Sparks; photographed by Robert Fraisse; edited by Alan Heim; production designed by Sarah Knowles; music by Aaron Zigman; produced by Mark Johnson, Lynn Harris. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, June 25. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sexuality).

Noah Calhoun - Ryan Gosling

Allie Hamilton - Rachel McAdams

The Man ("Duke") - James Garner

The Woman - Gena Rowlands

Anne Hamilton - Joan Allen

Lon - James Marsden

Frank Calhoun - Sam Shepard



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