Opening shots tend to say a lot about a movie, but they say everything about The Notebook, a glossy adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' four-hanky sudser. Over a twinkling piano, director Nick Cassavetes sets the scene of a thousand paperback romances: A lone boatman paddling against a blazing sunset, a woman staring wistfully from the garret of a lakeside plantation, a flock of seagulls flapping toward her window in slow motion. Subtract the references to Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway, slap on a cover with flowing locks and heaving bosoms, and the film could be a smash at supermarket checkout counters nationwide.
Retooling Love Story for a new generation, with Alzheimer's replacing cancer as the terminal disease du jour, Cassavetes runs headlong into a bitter irony: His father, indie legend John Cassavetes, spent a career depicting relationships as messy, contentious battlegrounds of the heart, light-years removed from Love Story's gloppy notions of crystalline preciousness. There's plenty of tension inherent in The Notebook, which pairs a strapping lumberjack with a wealthy debutante, but none of the elder Cassavetes' passion and grit; instead, the film leaves an oft-told tale to marinate slowly in its own syrup.
The framing device presents the gag reflex with its first and most critical test. As his beloved Gena Rowlands withers away in a nursing home from Alzheimer's, James Garner tries to jog her memory by reading the story of their lives together, prompting a flashback to their youths in 1940. Garner stand-in Ryan Gosling stars as a humble yet free-spirited country boy who falls for rich girl Rachel McAdams, over the objections of her snooty parents, played by Joan Allen and Josef Stalin look-alike David Thornton. When McAdams' family moves to upstate New York and WWII begins, the young lovers are forced apart, as Gosling fights bravely for the Allies in Europe and McAdams volunteers as a nurse, swooning over wounded stud James Marsden. But Gosling's steadfast love, manifested in a beautifully restored Southern plantation house, draws them together in a chance rendezvous.
Periodically, Cassavetes cuts back to Garner and Rowlands, who muses about the "wonderful story" being told. But those not suffering from Alzheimer's may find it a bit too familiar. At one point, Gosling and McAdams even marvel at the improbability of a city girl and a country boy falling in love, as if they'd necked through all the movies in which that happens. Lingering memories of Gosling's turn as a neo-Nazi in The Believer give his character an edge that the film desperately needs, but his hard features melt at all the appropriate beats. In a romance where paradise is a duck-filled pond, it helps to be mild-mannered.