Movie Review: The Notebook

The Stupid, Cute Brand of Romance

Right there is Allie and Noah in a nutshell. Directed by Nick Cassavetes (John Q) from the tearjerker by Catholic novelist Nicholas Sparks (A Walk to Remember), The Notebook is about a couple whose budding relationship consists basically of three things:

1. Doing cute / stupid / romantic / picturesque things. See Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) lie in the middle of a darkened intersection watching the traffic light change, then scramble for safety when a car comes! See Allie enjoying after-tryst oil painting, clad only in a sheet on the porch!

2. Waging a battle of wills. Allie and Noah quarrel a lot, to the point that she starts smacking him when she gets angry enough.

3. Getting way too forward with one another physically. Allie and Noah have a very physical relationship; even when Allie’s not smacking him, they can hardly keep their hands off one another.

As their relationship progresses, Allie and Noah just keep on doing the same three things, but on an ever-increasing scale. One night they decide to go all the way in a quaintly dilapidated old manor home that Noah wants to restore; hours later they’re breaking up with much shouting and smacking. (You might think there was some subtle point being made here about their inappropriate intimacy precipitating deeper conflict, but I’d be willing to bet that that thought is a lot deeper than this story.)

At this point Allie’s parents, who are from old Southern money and have never approved of dirt-poor Noah, contrive to separate the quarreling lovers. This naturally calls for a romantic picturesque gesture, which Noah provides in grand style first by sending Allie 365 letters, one per day, for the next year, then by obsessively restoring that manor home as a monument to his undying love for her.

Nothing More Than Feelings

Small wonder, years later, when she learns what he’s done, that she begins to have second thoughts about the dashing and well-to-do but perhaps not quite as hopelessly romantic fiancé she’s acquired in the interim. (In a welcome departure from cliché, the luckless fiancé, played by James Marsden of the X-Men movies, actually seems to be both a good guy and a good catch.) Small wonder she decides to take a trip down memory lane, and winds up energetically making up for all that lost time, until Noah is plumb exhausted and can’t move until she gets up and makes him flapjacks.

A bit later, finally starting to come to grips with the necessity of choosing between her fiancé and her lover, Allie is told by her mother, “You knew what you were doing.” Allie’s oddly non sequitur reply is: “So I’m a tramp, is that it?” Perhaps this is the reply of a guilty conscience; the obvious answer would seem to be, “Well, dear, if the shoe fits…”

That’s about as close as The Notebook gets to connecting Allie and Noah’s cheerful carnality in any particular way to any moral principles. (There’s also a scene in which Allie’s hurt and bewildered fiancé responds with heroic forbearance to this betrayal.) In a larger sense, there’s nothing remotely cautionary or critical here; the drama seems to side solidly with the young lovers.

Of course, the above interpretation of events differs markedly from the account recorded in the titular notebook — hardly surprising, since The Notebook was written by Allie herself. Allie and Noah’s young life together is seen in flashback; in the framing story, Allie is an old woman (Gena Rowlands) in a nursing home, and her mind is failing. She doesn’t recognize the old man (James Garner) who comes to visit her, or the story of young love he reads to her from an old notebook.

I suspect that at some point in the creative process the audience may have been meant to be in suspense whether the old man would turn out to be Noah or the fiancé, though at this point the most that can be said in that direction is that neither Gosling nor Marsden looks the slightest bit like a young James Garner.

Steadfast Devotion Is Great But Where’s the Ring?

Since Garner is obviously Noah, I’ll go ahead and say that there’s something very touching about old Noah’s steadfast devotion to Allie, not only till death do them part, but also for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Their story — the story of the aged Noah reading to addled Allie from The Notebook a story that she sometimes feels she’s heard before — is far more evocative and interesting than the actual story in The Notebook.

The Notebook does contain one (1) scene that actually displays a bit of depth, in which Noah tells Allie that he knows that if they stick it out it will always be hard and that they’ll always fight, but that he wants to be with her anyway no matter what for the rest of their lives.

Yet while Allie and Noah do apparently stick it out for better for worse, in sickness and in health, is it clear that they ever actually marry? Certainly they spend their lives together — a scene with their numerous progeny confirms that — but is there ever an actual wedding?

Granted, lifelong cohabitation would be an oddity in that day and age. At the same time, a friend recalls one of the nurses addressing old Allie as “Miss Nelson” (her maiden name, Noah’s surname being Calhoun); and a wife keeping her maiden name would also surely be an oddity in that day and age.

Those who previously knew Sparks primarily as the author of the wholesomely pro-chastity A Walk to Remember are liable to be caught off-guard by The Notebook’s sex scenes, which are lit, choreographed, and edited to just this side of an R rating.

Sparks has commented that he would never write a love story about adultery, like Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, adultery being in his words “anathema to me.” Apparently, fornication (lifelong cohabitation?) isn’t in the same class.

[Note: this movie contains a number of non-marital bedroom scenes of varying length and intensity (no explicit nudity); recurring profanity.]

(c) 2004 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.

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