Yesterday, Senior Writer Mandi Bierly sent the following email to some of the male humans at Entertainment Weekly:
June 25 is the 10th anniversary of The Notebook‘s theatrical release. In 2009, I had three male country singers tell me it’s the one so-called chick flick they’d admit to liking. Another said he walked on his bus once and his whole band was in a piss poor mood—they told him they’d just finished watching it and had all cried. Why do men tolerate The Notebook more than other Nicholas Sparks adaptations? Has it made you cry? Do you consider it a guilty pleasure or simply a solid film? Wondering if any of you have theories you’d be willing to share.
There were four responses:
NEIL JANOWITZ: Been awhile since I last watched it, but as I remember it, Gosling’s something of a reverse Manic Pixie Dream Girl. He’s this agent of romantic chaos who swoops into the staid life of this girl and her buttoned-up boyfriend and wins her over with his spontaneity and charm. The embodiment of swagger, but also focus and passion.
In the context of trying to win a woman’s heart, he’s about as cool as you can picture a guy being. Even when he’s being sappy or sentimental, it’s not an “aw shucks” kind of thing. It’s him wooing with complete control. I think there’s something appealing to men about the idea of getting the girl you want and having this charged-up romantic life, but being a total f—ing wild card as you do so.
JEFF LABRECQUE: Oddly enough, I think it has a lot to do with James Garner, who might be one of the most warmly admired and underrated actors of the last 50 years. He makes everything look easy. Women might like him, but men, I think, really like him. He’s been cool in everything he’s ever done, and in The Notebook, his consoling presence and soothing voice actually go a long way.
RAY RAHMAN: I’ll tell you one thing—and this will sound crass, but I don’t know how else to say it–a lot of guys like watching it with girls/on dates because it’s kind of a guaranteed pantydropper.
Plus, yes, it makes people of all genders cry.
DARREN FRANICH: First of all, it is totally a solid film, not a guilty pleasure by any means. It’s legitimately hard to find good chemistry in movies, especially because so many major directors now are way too focused on narrative or technical issues to spend time trying to really build up a relationship onscreen. (Like, I love David Fincher, but he and most of his fellow music-video-trained directors seem to purposefully find people with anti-chemistry.)
Since Nick Cassavetes has exclusively made horrible movies on either side of The Notebook, I have to assume that the chemistry between Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling was such a burning supernova of passion that it basically generated a movie out of itself, infusing bland dialogue and a non-story with power and grace and humor. Like, I guess you could point to certain things that set the movie apart–the flashback structure, the evocative-but-postcard-thin Carolina setting–but really, it’s the Gosling and McAdams Show from start to finish. In a better world they made nine movies and beautiful babies together.
But to your main question: Why do men specifically respond to this movie? I think it’s because it’s the rare Hollywood romance that’s all about loss. Like, just in the Gosling/McAdams segment, they have this incredible romantic summer, and then it all gets taken away. When they find each other years later, Gosling clearly thinks that McAdams will just fall back in love with him. Obviously she will–it’s a movie!–but all the scenes of them back together are kind of infused with melancholy for most of the running time. Like, he’d an older and sadder man after the war, she’s in love with a much more together and less crazy Marsden-type of guy. And the casting of Marsden is key. Because Marsden isn’t a bad guy, and he isn’t a RIDICULOUSLY handsome guy. He’s just, like, the right kind of guy that your ex-girlfriend would wind up with: Kind of boring, clearly more stable, nice smile, probably a better man than you are.
Really–and I know this will sound highfalutin but f— it–there’s something very Great Gatsby about The Notebook. Gosling is the lower-class townie who wanted to become a better/more appropriate match for his dream girl, so he went away to war, came back, turned his house into a palace. And then found out that she left him behind. I dunno how The Notebook plays to teenaged guys, but I definitely think if you’re a dude who ever had that one girl–The One That Got Away, a cliché that is a cliché for a reason–then The Notebook is wish fulfillment vividly rendered. You really CAN go home again, find your summer love again, the implicit promise being not just that you’ll get her but that you’ll become the man she wanted you to be, and not even Marsden can hold her away…
…except that there’s also the scenes in the present day, which are pretty goofy but which also, I think, play into why The Notebook affects guys maybe even more than girls. Like, if the Gosling/McAdams stuff plays out as wish-fulfillment–the girl who you thought forgot you actually remembers you and has loved you all along, she just needed to get all your letters!–then the Garner/Rowlands stuff plays as the tougher corollary. That girl who you thought forgot you REALLY forgot you, so much so that you need to tell her the story of you two every day. I have to believe that sort of plays into every guy’s hero complex a little (Garner is sort of “saving” Rowlands, which I’m sure is vaguely problematic gender politics-wise) but the final act also plays into every guy’s inherent fear about aging.
I have a theory that most guys have a point–usually around 23 or 24, maybe later–when they realize that they are actually going to get older and weaker. And we completely freak out about it, because for most guys, every age from four onwards is the age when you’re strongest/coolest/toughest. So the Garner/Rowlands stuff is almost kind of a dude horror movie–You’re old! Your love has forgotten you! You’re having a heart attack, symbolism alert!–and then it curves back around into a fairy tale. She remembers you! And death isn’t scary as long as she’s with you!
So from the guy’s perspective, The Notebook has its cake and eats it too and then clones the cake and dips it in another cake and then that cake eats the cake while it eats you. None of this should work, but Gosling and McAdams are perfect, so it does.