"THE NOTEBOOK" may be one hundred percent sap, but its spirit is anything but cloying, thanks to persuasive performances, most notably from Rachel McAdams. As Allie Hamilton, whose passionate heart becomes the movie's powerful fulcrum, she almost makes you forget what you're swallowing.
In a nursing home, a genial visitor (the ever-dignified James Garner) named Duke insists on reading a romantic story (Fictional? True? We don't immediately know) to an aged woman (Gena Rowlands) despite her struggles with Alzheimer's disease. What Duke reads becomes the main body of the film: a 1940s romance in Seabrook, N.C., between 17-year-old Allie and gutsy 19-year-old Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling), who courts her with the relentlessness of a catbird.
Will she go out with him? Will she? Huh? He's poor. She's from an affluent family. She declines. And declines. But Noah eventually has his way. Allie becomes entranced by this boy on their first date -- right after he insists they lie down in the middle of the road, in front of a traffic light.
Adapted from Nicholas Sparks's 1996 bestseller of the same name, "The Notebook" is hokum from the get-go. But McAdams (who has already proved her mettle in "Mean Girls") brings her archetypal rich girl to resounding life; and Gosling imbues Noah with beguiling unaffectedness. It's hard not to like these two or begrudge them a great love together.
The story, however, has other ideas. Their desire to be with each other gets a constant buffeting. It starts with opposition from Allie's parents (David Thornton and Joan Allen), who sure don't need a poor country boy as kin (stop me when you hear something original). It continues with Allie's trip to college (which her mother insists upon, worried about her daughter's affection for Noah), and Noah's participation in World War II. When he returns, still in love with Allie, the biggest problem of all awaits: Allie's love for another man. Lon Hammond (James Marsden) is rich. He gets along beautifully with Allie's parents. He's devoted to Allie. And he's just slipped a fat engagement ring on her finger.
The less said about the rest of the movie, the better its chances with you. Director Nick Cassavetes and screenwriters Jan ("Shine") Sardi and Jeremy Leven (who wrote the delightful "Don Juan DeMarco") do their best work with the character behavior in the story, rather than the predictable structure. (They are contending, after all, with the maudlin work of novelist Sparks, who also wrote "Message in a Bottle" and "A Walk to Remember.") Speaking of sentimental, it's gratifying to see Cassavetes directing Rowlands, his mother, who with her husband, John Cassavetes (Nick's father), made some of the great independent films of the American cinema. What a shame they couldn't have collaborated on something more in the spirit of the departed John.
THE NOTEBOOK (PG-13, 121 minutes) -- Contains sexual situations. Area theaters.