You know what you want to see if you want to see The Notebook. Even if you’re not familiar with the bosom-heaving beach-read 1996 bestseller by Nicholas Sparks on which it’s based, you’re ready for a love story so swollen that the heavens open up, along with your tear ducts. You want to see girls in pretty 1940s dresses, soldiers in stirring World War II uniforms, handsome automobiles and equally handsome Southern landscapes. You want to see romance overcome adversity the way it’s not always guaranteed to in more contemporary movies, and even less often in life. You want to root for Noah (Ryan Gosling) the poor boy and Allie (Rachel McAdams) the rich girl to triumph over everything that traditionally stands in the way of poor boys and rich girls ending up together, including a disapproving mother (Joan Allen) and a more socioeconomically appropriate fiancé (James Marsden) in the wings. A clinching kiss in the pouring rain would be nice; so would the chaste outlines of naked embrace and ardent letters that never reach their intended recipient until years later. Cinematic understatement carries no fetishistic allure for you.
It does for me, but let’s set that aside. The young lovers played by Gosling and McAdams are the best part of Nick Cassavetes’ florid production, from a screenplay by ”The Legend of Bagger Vance” overstater Jeremy Leven. Gosling, the magnetic discovery from ”The Believer,” and McAdams, who played a perfect Plastic in ”Mean Girls,” make a comely couple, their chemistry as natural as the story is rigged. They are, however and alas, only half the love story; they’re the photogenic flashback.
The present takes place at a genteel nursing home, where an old duffer named Duke (James Garner) reads the ballad of Noah and Allie from a notebook to an addled old bird, also named Allie (Gena Rowlands, mother of the director), whose memory has been snapped by the cruelties of Alzheimer’s disease. Yet as old Allie listens to the legend of the other, younger Allie and her sweetheart, her fog occasionally, briefly clears. Could she be, do you think…? And could he…?
Argh, must they be…? You need to believe this if you want to believe ”The Notebook”: that love works miracles. That memories never die. And that older, exceedingly well-preserved actors exhibit dignity and bravery, rather than faint creepiness and dissimulation, when they pretend so strenuously to be old, unpreserved specimens who refuse to be conquered by senility of heart, mind, or story.