‘The Notebook’ at 20 – Review

The Notebook (2004)
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Screenwriter: Jeremy Leven
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, James Marsden, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard, Joan Allen.

When The Notebook was released in the summer of 2004, critics and audiences seemed split in their response to the film. Based on the 1996 Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name, and starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling as young, star-crossed lovers in 1940s USA, The Notebook was a hit at the box office and was particularly popular with young adults, winning a slew of accolades at both the Teen Choice Awards and the MTV Movie Awards. Critical reception, however, was lukewarm. Some reviews at the time seemed turned off by The Notebook’s sentimental love story, calling the romance everything from “gooey” and “over-the-top” to “sickly sweet”.

Of course, none of that stopped The Notebook from achieving a kind of pop culture significance that makes it difficult to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. The iconic makeout scene in the rain between McAdams and Gosling is among the most memorable and recognizable moments of onscreen romance, as is their recreation of that kiss on stage at the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, where the pair won Best Kiss. And Gosling’s often quoted ‘What do you want?!’ monologue has been memed to death online to the point of absurdity. At this point, nearly all of Sparks’ novels have been adapted for the screen, but none of them have even come close to having the impact of The Notebook.

20 years later, the film’s dismissal, by some, as a middle-brow chick-flick that your girlfriend forces you to watch with her at gunpoint (for no reason other than to hold a box of tissues as she cries), rather than any kind of serious art, is worthy of some extreme side-eye. The truth is: The Notebook succeeds in spite of its flaws and because of its sentimentality. Spearheaded by irresistible and committed lead performances, The Notebook is a genuinely moving portrayal of love, from that first spark to its last breath, and it stands as a testament to the seductive power of romantic cinema.

Directed by Nick Cassavetes, The Notebook is essentially a story within a story. In present day, we meet Duke (James Garner), who lives in a nursing home and spends his days (appropriately) reading a handwritten story from a notebook to a female patient who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That story begins in the summer of 1940, at a carnival in the sleepy seaside town of Seabrook, South Carolina. There, on the eve of World War II, Noah Calhoun (Gosling), a poor lumber worker, meets 17-year-old heiress Allie Hamilton (McAdams), who is staying in town with her family for a few months. Though they initially get off on the wrong foot, Allie and Noah soon fall in love, but are eventually forced apart by Allie’s parents, who insist that Noah is not a suitable match for their daughter. Following the war, Allie becomes engaged to Lon Hammon (James Marsden), a former solider loaded with old, Southern money. Their impending marriage is complicated, however, when Allie spots a photo of Noah in the newspaper, leading her to question what she really wants in life – and who she wants to be with.

There is a half-hearted attempt at the beginning of the film to conceal the truth, but it is not long before we can infer that the older couple depicted in the framing device is in fact Noah and Allie. Noah reads to her every day the story of how they met and fell in love and the challenges they faced, in the hopes that, despite her mind being ravaged by disease, she will somehow find a way remember it – to come back to him. Even though his doctor tells him quite frankly that, at some point, there is simply is no coming back, Noah shrugs this off. “Science can only go so far, and then there’s God,” he says.

The Notebook is a film that wholeheartedly believes in miracles and divine intervention. More importantly, it makes us believe in them too. It is a film that does not have a cynical bone in its body and is instead infused with tenderness and nostalgia, a longing for a time that has already slipped by. Its early scenes are idealized in the way only first love can be – saturated in golden summer light, the southern heat palpable. At its core, The Notebook is a fantasy, one that makes us long for a time in history that never really existed – it simply airbrushes away the more unseemly realities of the pre/post-war American South. The time period in general is nothing more than a backdrop – an aesthetic. Though it is a romance first and foremost, and it never pretends to be anything else, The Notebook is none the less the kind of historical film that centers whiteness. History lingers at the edges of every frame, though, in the plantation house Noah buys and restores and in the mention of Lon being heir to a cotton dynasty. These details are mentioned in passing and inconsequential in the end because our characters are never truly affected by them. It’s not really fair to judge a film based on what it is not, but it’s still worth noting that The Notebook‘s fantasy relies on a kind of whitewashing that invites us to forget the existence of our own blighted past, made for people who have the luxury of pretending.

The Notebook wants us to believe in the all-consuming power of true love, and McAdams and Gosling are more than up for the task, both giving equally heartfelt performances.

Playing a romantic lead like Noah was an interesting pivot for Gosling at the time. The actor, who would go on to achieve comedy gold as Ken in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, had earlier in his career been drawn to much darker roles. In the years leading up to The Notebook, he not only played a sociopath in Murder by Numbers, but also a neo-nazi in The Believer. Because of this, Gosling brings a slight edge to his performance that is really effective in his portrayal of Noah after the war, broken by the loss of Allie and his father’s (Sam Shepard) death, half-crazy with the notion of somehow winning Allie back. His transformation is subtle and hints at the range we now know for certain that he has. Rachel McAdams is a revelation as Allie, playing her with a such a strength and fire, imbuing her with a rich interiority that the script does little more than hint at. The fact that Mean Girls – where she plays ice cold queen bee Regina George – was released in the same year is evidence enough of her ability to disappear into her roles with nothing more than a hair color change.

As far as supporting performances go, Joan Allen as Allie’s mom is a definite stand out, doing so much with so little and turning a character that would be easy to hate into one that you can’t help but to sympathize with. While McAdams and Gosling are given all of the big, melodramatic story moments, James Garner and Gena Rowlands as the older Allie and Noah offer smaller, more grounded performances that are just as affecting.

In particular, Gosling and McAdams are so convincing that it’s easy to forget that the film never really gives us much reason as to why Noah and Allie want to be together so desperately. The Notebook, for all its grand gestures, is unfortunately light on the details, relying for the most part on the inherent chemistry of our leads to fill in the banks. But, that doesn’t matter as much as it might in other films, because in the end the right kind of love is neither good nor bad – it is simply the one that you want. It’s about being brave enough to go and get it.

Score: 17/24

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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