Movie Review: 'The Notebook'

by Rich Brooks

18 March 2005

I had, on first thought, never intended to see this supposedly mushy "chick flick." Not my cup of tea, was my immediate reaction to the movie when I first heard about it. But for once I was actually influenced by the Talmudvision advertising spots which have been heavily promoting "The Notebook" ever since it was first released on video a couple weeks ago or so. I picked up a copy of the DVD yesterday (Monday) when Albertsons has all vids available to rent for a buck.

Yes, the movie is unabashedly sentimental and even schmaltzy at times, but it is also a story about a deep love that feels genuine and real. The fact that the novel it was based upon was written by a man, Adam Sparks, probably accounts for the harder-edged treatment this film gives to usually mushy material. This material could easily have been turned into a clichéd soap opera in the wrong hands, but director Nick Cassavetes has given us a powerful film that, yes I'll admit it, moved me to tears.

The story is told in a series of scenes alternating between the present day and the 1940s. The locations both past and present (with the exception of a few brief clips) are set in South Carolina, so the feel of the South is very much an important element in the film. Hey, I was amazed though that no mention is made of race or politics even though the 1940 Southern society depicted here is Jim Crow White with negroes performing only servile roles. Yes, folks, you'll like this film, because it is only a story about love between two people (a man and a woman, I suppose it's necessary to add in this day and age) - nothing anything more sociological. World War II intervenes at one point, but even this event is not politicized as it usually is in Hymiewood. In fact, if anything, the film might be characterized as antiwar, but maybe even that's a stretch. The jews seldom miss an opportunity to tell us how evil Hitler was, but I guess they slipped up here bigtime, for a change.

I'm not going to relate the whole plot, because, unlike so many romantic movies, there is an element of suspense here. The less you know about the story before you see it, the more enjoyable your viewing experience will be. It starts out with an old lady in a nursing home, played by Gena Rolands (who happens to be the mother of director Cassavetes). We quickly meet another resident of the nursing home, "Duke," played by James Garner. We learn that Rolands has Alzheimer's but that Garner is trying to revive her memory by coming into her room every day and reading her a story from a notebook; hence the movie's title.

A little disclaimer here: I've been a Jim Garner fan ever since I watched Maverick on TV every Sunday night as a young teenager in the 1960s. He has matured and ripened like a fine wine or aged cheese, and now in his seventies he has, unlike John Wayne, become a truly nuanced actor who still gets away with basically playing himself -- not a caricature like so many older actors are forced to become (cf. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and countless others) if they wish to continue working. I know he's a political "liberal" like just about everyone else in Snakewood, but I also see him as one of the rare actors who has promoted basic Aryan values in most of the roles he has played. This is particularly evident in "Notebook."

As "Duke" reads her the story, we flash back to 1940 in a small town near Charleston, South Carolina, and we meet young Noah Calhoun, a bright but poor working class lad from the wrong side of the tracks. Ryan Gosling, who gave such a powerful performance in "The Believer," plays a very different kind of role here, but he is equally convincing as Noah as he was when he played the (too?) articulate "neo-nazi." It's love at first sight when he lays his eyes on Allie, a girl from wealthy Charleston society vacationing with her parents at their summer mansion just outside this small, seaside and riverside town. Allie at first snobbishly resists Noah's advances, but he eventually wears her down and she accepts a date. Then it's a torrid summer romance, but unfortunately it turns out to be just a summer romance. Allie has to start school at Sarah Lawrence in the fall, and besides, her parents are none too enthusiastic about her seeing a boy of Noah's social status.

However, their vast difference in social standing is not given an overemphasis in this story, and none of the rich people are demonized as is so often the case in jewy movies. Newcomer Rachel McBride plays the young Allie, and the chemistry is just right between her and Gosling. The war years intervene, and so the couple is separated for seven years. In the meantime, Allie meets a rich young man in New York; he quickly proposes to her and she accepts. In the usual romance or romantic comedy, the girl after separation meets and plans to marry another man who she doesn't really like and is a rat, but true first love wins out in the end and at the last minute (cf. "The Graduate").. "Notebook" is notable in that Allie really loves Lon, her now fiancé. Even though he's filthy rich, he's really a nice guy too, and we're not completely sure what choice she'll make in the end. As I said, there's an element of suspense in the movie that will keep your attention.

Meanwhile, Rolands is starting to sporadically regain some of her lost memories as Garner reads this story to her. The movie doesn't try to sugarcoat the reality of Alzheimer's, however, and there is no miraculous complete recovery. The ending perhaps dragged on a bit too long, but in the end I felt it was a satisfying, if emotionally draining, conclusion.

Much of this film is shot as a period piece, and the cinematographer has captured the look and feel of a small Southern town of a bygone era. I love the beautifully restored old cars, particularly the convertibles and coupes of 1940. There are also old plantation mansions that evoke the feel of "Gone With the Wind," as well. The music is also evocative of the 40s; it was, after all, the big band era and there is a lot of swing music along with schmaltz. The score wasn't overly intrusive as it sometimes can be in "romantic" movies, however. All in all, I thought it was very well filmed and directed with only one glaring glitch that distracted me. There is a beach scene early in the film and it's on a rocky coast, obviously California. As far as I know, there are no rocky coastlines anywhere on the Atlantic except in Maine, and especially not near Charleston, South Carolina. The director admitted in his commentary that the scene was filmed in Malibu. My question would be "why?" There are plenty of sandy beaches in Southern California if location is an issue.

That minor quibble aside, I can wholeheartedly recommend "The Notebook" even if love stories are not your thing. It is far superior in both plot and performances to "Love Story," that maudlin and vastly overrated film from the 1970s. "Sweet and very tender but not saccharine" is how I'd sum it up in seven words.

Note on writer Adam Sparks. I watched the DVD segment on his life, and he seems like a truly admirable White Man. Before he wrote this novel, he was just a wage slave working as a pharmaceutical salesman. Since then, he's written seven more novels. He is a very good looking White man, a former Notre Dame athlete, and a chick magnet to young and old whenever he goes to book signings. But he's really a very dedicated family man who lives in North Carolina with his wife and three kids, attends church every week (I assume Catholic) with his family, and says he avoids the Hollywood and New York scenes. If you wonder why this film is so poignant, you won't be so surprised when you learn that Adam is still a young man and he has already lost his mother and father and also his younger sister. He only has his one brother left besides the new family he is creating. Yet in spite of all his personal tragedy, he's turned lemons into lemonade. If you rent the DVD, be sure to catch this extra feature.


Mr. Brooks edits

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