An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

             Just how far can you stretch a story of first love?  For two hours if you are author Nicholas Sparks or director John Cassavetes.  Mr. Sparks has a satchel full of clichés that sorely test even the most tolerant among us, and Mr. Cassavetes, normally a fine director, has the unenviable job of arranging and rearranging this predictable dialogue until our patience is worn nearly through.  “The Notebook” is a bowl of mush. 

            Considering Mr. Cassavetes and his fine cast  – Gena Rowlands, James Garner, Joan Allen, and Sam Shepard – mush is not what we expect; but wait, I forgot; this is a novel by Nicholas Sparks who has written two quite terrible potboilers:  this one, and  “Message in a Bottle,” which was subsequently turned into one of the worst movies of its year.  Hollywood loves to hand bestsellers to big stars in the hope that their wattage will overwhelm the mediocrity of the material.  A bad script usually dooms even the best of them. 


            Noah (James Garner) visits Allie in a nursing home, reading gently to her from a story of first love that occasionally brings her back to the present from wherever her mind has taken her.  The story, of flirting and love making, unfolds at a repetitive, sleep-inducing pace until finally we realize these poor actors have nothing to work with.


Things are not helped by Rachel McAdams as the young lover in a performance that alternates between shrill laughter and overcooked despair.  Ryan Gosling plays her suitor well enough.  His departure for New York leaves young Allie home in the south, ripe to fall in love with a rich young southern boy more appropriate to her parents’ tastes.


            Mom is played by the wonderful Joan Allen, whose tight-lipped ferocity tells us she probably understands well that she chose the wrong movie.  The appropriate fiancé loves his lady dearly and is decent right down to his socks.


            There are flashes of the real Gena Rowlands, but she is airbrushed to a mask, and we miss the lifelines of her own expression.  Mr. Cassavetes, who learned his art at the knees of his richly talented parents, has had problems directing his mother before (remember  “Unhook the Stars?”), but still he is accomplished as an actor and director.  The blame here doesn’t really belong to cast and crew, but to the author who seems unable to think or write anything beyond the obvious.  At mid point, anyone who hasn’t predicted the outcome is seriously impaired.  Worst of all, author Sparks seems to be saving his ending as an abrupt surprise.


            “The Notebook” is what we think of as a summer book, and as is often the case, it is empty - undefined, undistinguished, a wrong step for everyone concerned – especially those of us who take the time to see it.  It is also sentimental, the last resort of authors who write on the surface of things.  Alas, Mr. Sparks, perhaps another profession?


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