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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005

Take a note: Too much sugar kills



The Notebook

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Running time: 123 minutes
Language: English
Opens Feb. 5
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Oh dear. These things happen: Like being stuck in a restaurant with a date who makes you fantasize about turning into a cloud of smoke and escaping through the overhead ventilation. It's really nothing personal -- just a case of crossed stars, the wrong chemistry, whatever.

News photo
Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams in "The Notebook"

The same kind of reaction went surging through the synapses with "The Notebook," a four-hankie tale about pure love and how its flame burns hard despite all adversities. While such a tale is heavenly for some, the experience borders on torturous for someone like myself, whose cranky, nicotine-stained heart only gets harder at the soppy strings of the score, the repetition of "I love you," and the eyes-shut-tight, vein-popping, oxygen-deprived kisses that make you fear for the actors' health.

I should have heeded the warning signs, like the fact that "The Notebook" is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks; the Mr. Sparks whose earlier "Message in a Bottle" (the book and the movie) churned out enough sugary sweetness to ice all the cupcakes in the northern hemisphere.

I blame myself. It's just that when I saw the promotional flier my eyes locked onto the part about Nick Cassavetes being the director and Gena Rowlands (his mother) being one of the stars. Nick is the son of John Cassavetes (legendary N.Y. indie director/actor) and his earlier outing "She's so Lovely," which had been about desperation, despair and subsequent personal shipwrecks, had attested to the thickness of family blood. Surely this was a must-see, despite the all-too-picturesque poster shot of a young woman clasping the cheeks of a young man (both of them drenched in slanting rain). I chose to ignore it, and forge on. Really, it's all my fault.

"The Notebook" opens with two people in an old folks' home. Duke (James Garner) likes to read aloud to the Alzheimer-ridden Allie (Gena Rowlands) from the pages of a notebook that's crammed with recordings of a summertime love affair that happened in North Carolina 1940 when he was a teenager. Because of her disease, Allie spends her days in a blissful haze comprised of attentive nurses and soft lighting, but Duke is so full of pep you wonder what he's doing in a senior citizens' institution. Accordingly, Allie is always perfectly coiffed and immaculately dressed; it's just her memory that's blank. Nevertheless she's breathlessly caught up in Duke's story of young love and presses him to tell her "what happened next."

Duke's narration alerts us to the fact that his lover in the story is Allie herself. The young Allie (Rachel McAdams) was the Southern belle daughter of a wealthy family who met Noah (Ryan Gosling) during her summer vacation. A sensitive, Whitman-reciting lumberjack, Noah fell for Allie immediately and made a lasting impression by threatening to jump off the Ferris wheel if she didn't go out with him. At first, Allie was wary but soon the pair became inseparable, much to the annoyance of Allie's class-conscious mother (played with uncharacteristic flatness by Joan Allen) who declares: "The boy is trash (she pronounces it tray-ash) Allie. Tray-ash, Tray-ash, Tray-ash!"

Allie is undissuaded, but come September she goes off to college and Noah joins the army. From the front lines he writes to Allie every day, a total of 365 letters, but these were all suppressed by her mother. Assuming that this love was not meant to be, Allie agrees to marry someone else, and when Noah finally returns, it's only to have his heart broken . . . At this point I'm compelled to take a loooong drag on my cigarette and plug into my iPod.

"The Notebook" has some saving graces, namely the performances by the young couple. Gosling makes an easy leap from his cool, distant, indie-actor image to rugged Marlboro Man who only says a thing when he means it, and it is worth saying. But in their scenes together, it's McAdams who rules.

The actress injects so much energy and passion into her every line, and her voice soars above everything and everyone else -- she's not shrill, but operatic. She doesn't giggle but sends out peals of hilarious laughter, she doesn't sob but dissolves in an Amazonian waterfall of tears. You can actually see the blood rush to her face when she's angry, see into her throat when she laughs. None of it seems like exaggerated bad acting; the screen just glows with her warmth and then the temperature keeps rising.

Gena Rowlands had a similar effect in some of John Cassavetes' films: Ironically in her son's work she's required to tone herself down and flatline her emotions while the actress playing her younger self bucks up and threatens to burst from the story's seams.



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