NOTEBOOK, THE

PG

-By Harry Haun


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Any movie that provides work for James Garner and Gena Rowlands is okay in my book. I just wish they didn't have to work as hard as they have to in The Notebook, a schmaltzy little clambake writ large in runny Crayolas. If you have tears to shed, prepare to give them up to these old pros. Their charisma may be a bit cracked, but it's blissfully intact.

And it keeps you afloat amid the churning, cloying tidal waves of bathos that pass for plot. That comes, via Jan Sardi's adaptation and Jeremy Leven's script, from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, who, despite the name, deals in soggy sagas. This is the third (after Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember) to be left to drip-dry on the big screen.

Eight years were required to bring this to fruition. Along the way, for varying degrees of time and seriousness, the project engaged the interests of Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Jim Sheridan, Martin Campbell, Robert Duvall, Ashley Judd and Matt Damon. All bailed--with cause. It's a vat of sticky sentimentality that demands pretty strenuous swimming.

Garner and Rowlands are entrusted with framing the film, which they do with expected grace and dignity. It's not their fault it's a false start. They play their hand sincerely, but the horses-in-midstream switch to reality is awkward and annoying--a cruel jolt and joke.

At first glance, Garner appears to be a community do-gooder who shows up at a nursing horse and volunteers to read to Rowlands, a newly installed patient. What he reads to her is written down in a notebook. Eventually, it dawns on her through the Alzheimer's fog that he is reading their own love story--you know, as in Love Story--and she explodes into a confused fury that is only a tad less pronounced than what the duped audience is feeling.

Rowlands has validated the arguable art of a director before (most memorably, that of her late husband, John Cassavetes), and she does it again here. The recipient is her son, Nick Cassavetes, who can be pretty ham-fisted and obvious in the low art of jerking tears.

The bulk of the film belongs to Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams--polar opposites to their performances in The Believer and Mean Girls--playing '40s versions of Garner and Rowlands. It's not their fault their class-clashing romance is inconsequential and tired.

James Marsden provides a slight triangle threat to the central relationship, and Sam Shepard convincingly delivers the role of Gosling's dad (although there's not much to it). The best performance in the film comes from Joan Allen, mostly because of the way she humanizes and rounds off a role of one-note negativity (McAdams' snooty mom).

Robert Fraisse's expert and attentive cinematography of the Carolina locales gives the film a rosy romanticism that wears down one's emotional guard and speeds the tears.

-Harry Haun


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