Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams star as young lovers from different social backgrounds whose relationship is torn apart by interfering parents and World War II. When they reunite many years later, she’s engaged to another (James Marsden), but their feelings for one another remain. The Notebook, based on the book by Nicholas Sparks, essentially boils down to, “Which boy will she choose?” But it gains an added dimension from a wrap-around story featuring James Garner and Gena Rowlands. Garner is reading the story of Gosling and McAdams to Rowlands, hoping it will spark her memory and help her from falling deeper into dementia. How are all these characters related? You can probably guess.
The Notebook is indisputably and quintessentially a love story, and that’s not a genre where I find many gems. The formula for love stories invites so much room for schmaltz, sentimentality, and cliches. And in lesser hands, this film might have suffered from some of those pitfalls. But director Nick Cassavetes (son of Rowlands and indie film pioneer John Cassavetes) approaches this simple story with unwavering conviction. The result is a film that, despite recounting a tale we’ve heard a million times, unfolds before our eyes like it has never been told before. Cassavetes coaxes believable and moving performances out of his cast and, except in a few sunset vistas and orchestral swells, refrains from stylistic indulgences that serve as crutches in other films of this kind. In other words, he keeps The Notebook real — to the point where you actually hope the film might begin to court fantasy, if only so we can have a happy ending.
Gosling and McAdams deliver standout performances. Garner effortlessly breaks your heart. The cast also includes Sam Shepard and Joan Allen.