Audiences craving big, gooey over-the-top romance have their must-see summer movie in "The Notebook," a confection syrupy enough to satisfy nearly every cinematic sweet tooth. Indeed, it seems as though the genre of heavy-handed tearjerker has become as reliable a seasonal bonbon at the multiplex as the disaster picture and the comic-book blockbuster.
In other words, "The Notebook" is a chick flick. It can also be filed under the heading "Wealthy People's Problems," as its female protagonist wrinkles her brow and worries whether to marry the guy with the waterfront property or the heir to the cotton fortune (and fiddle-dee-dee, which one will fetch her barbecue?). It spoils nothing to divulge that all ends well, although director Nick Cassavetes does everything he can to milk the maximum amount of tragedy from what, properly understood, qualifies as a reasonably happy ending.
"The Notebook," which has been adapted from the Nicholas Sparks novel by Jan Sardi and Jeremy Leven, is the story of Allie Hamilton and Noah Calhoun, who meet as teenagers in 1940 in coastal South Carolina. Switching between the present day and flashbacks to 60 years ago, the movie chronicles their idyllic summer romance, which blossoms into a full-blown love affair until Allie's upper-crust parents put the kibosh on it.
They go their separate ways -- Allie to Sarah Lawrence and wartime volunteer work, Noah to the local lumberyard, where he was working when he met Allie, then to North Africa with Patton. Upon his return, Noah begins obsessively rehabilitating the riverside house where he and Allie almost consummated their passion; she has taken up with Lon, a handsome, wealthy veteran who is more in keeping with her prim mother's expectations for her. Before the wedding, though, Allie pays a visit to Noah and must decide between the man who befits her station and the one who encourages her to indulge her bohemian nature (signified by her painting on the veranda, in the nude).
One of the strengths of "The Notebook," aside from its honey-toned production values and unapologetic voluptuousness, is that it keeps the audience guessing whom she chooses, right up until the end. The movie's flashbacks -- in which Allie and Noah are played by Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling -- are bracketed by a contemporary story in which a now-ill Allie (Gena Rowlands) is being read to by her husband (James Garner).
Of course, the book's fans will know how the story ends, but they may still be captivated all over again by "The Notebook's" sweeping romanticism. Never mind that McAdams and Gosling don't for a minute call to mind 1940s America; they're both suitably attractive and appealing. Gosling, who delivered a searing and largely unseen screen debut performance in the 2001 drama "The Believer," is particularly convincing as a young man who charms his way past a girl's strongest defenses.
If Gosling is a canny choice for a romantic lead, and if Joan Allen is porcelain perfection as Allie's icy mother, less convincing is David Thornton as Allie's father. Thornton is usually the go-to guy for supporting roles as nervous urban sophisticates; he's far less comfortable with the outsize handlebar mustache and Southern drawl he's forced to affect here. And it seems to be laying it on a little thick when young Noah is seen not only reading Walt Whitman aloud but reading it to a father played by Sam Shepard.
But Cassavetes soon goes from laying sentiment on thick to shoveling it on with a backhoe when the love story reaches its harrowing conclusion. Shifting tone with startling awkwardness, Cassavetes transforms the story from a gently lilting soap opera to a bleak depiction of the troubled last stages of life, albeit one well lived.
For a more authentic and profoundly moving meditation on the power of love to endure the ravages of memory, viewers are directed to Richard Eyre's "Iris," or even the recent Jim Carrey vehicle "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." As for "The Notebook," the intention is clearly to leave no eye in the house undabbed, and as the endless number of endings attest, this is a movie that isn't ashamed to wring each teardrop by any means necessary.
The Notebook (121 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some sexuality.