Any enterprising movie house manager would do well to fill a section of the concession stand with boxes of Kleenex for audiences buying tickets to this weeper, then figure out a way to market them before viewers sit down.
But don't think that The Notebook is a film that will turn off guys while the women sitting next to them sob away. (Hey, I cried; I'm not proud.) It's not an inherently sad movie. In fact, it's brimming with love and happiness.
It begins in utter peacefulness: an orange sunset, soft piano music, a solitary rower making his way through some backwaters. An aging woman (Gena Rowlands) is sitting at a window of a nursing home, staring out at the scene of serenity, when in walks Duke (James Garner), who's come to read to her. She seems a little unsure of what's going on, but she agrees to listen. And suddenly, as if it were a flashback, the story he's reading from a big book -- a notebook -- comes to life. We see what she hears.
It's a story of young love back in the 1940s, in which handsome, gangly, very lower-middle-class Noah (Ryan Gosling) falls hard, at first glance, for beautiful, smiling, well-to-do Allie (Rachel McAdams, virtually unrecognizable from her catty turn as the clique leader in Mean Girls). But she barely notices that he exists. That changes when he uses some gumption -- and a Ferris wheel -- to catch her attention and get a first date.
Both of these young actors are terrific, for a number of reasons. They're both attractive, so there's something here for male and female viewers alike to fantasize about. But they also hit it off together with screen presence, making their early scenes together completely believable. Because Noah is so smitten with Allie, he doesn't talk much. But she opens right up, going on about her busy, hectic, structured life -- more to please her controlling mother than herself. All he can mutter is "wow," and soon it emerges that one of them is more free-spirited than the other.
The film jumps back and forth between Duke reading the story to Rowlands' character -- who seems to jump in and out of a clear head and a muddled one -- and seeing the story unfurl. She does admit to Duke that she likes a good, romantic story, so despite her initially unexplained confusions, her interest perks up.
Of course, a good, romantic story must overcome some kind of obstacle in order for it to work out in the end. In this case, the threat comes courtesy of Allie's proud and nasty mother (Joan Allen), who simply won't have her mixing with some boy from the poor side of town: Allie comes of such good stock, she deserves only a rich boy as a beau. Allen delivers a typically brilliant performance.
It all gets quite Shakespearean, with Noah desperately trying to stay in touch with Allie after she's forcibly separated from him, while mom is continually meddling to make sure there's no contact (letters are intercepted before they're delivered, etc.). Eventually there's a wealthy military fellow named Lon (James Marsden) trying to make Allie part of his life, and all kinds of missed opportunities and feelings of being lost, and great fortune that doesn't mean anything if true love isn't part of the picture.
The film is aided greatly by the filtered, gorgeous look imparted by French cinematographer Robert Fraisse, by the perfect '40s costume designs of Karyn Wagner, and by the relaxed, sure direction of Nick Cassavetes (Rowlands' son). But this is the actors' movie: McAdams and Gosling are going to be stars, while Garner and Rowlands show why they're still in the game. In a small part that couldn't have been cast any better, moreover, Sam Shepard nails the role of Noah's free-spirited, easygoing father.
Though the latter part of the film may prove to be controversial due to its horrific and heartbreaking presentation of a personal calamity, the many fine aspects of The Notebook come together in a conclusion that's both happy and sad, with a final image that's as serene as that opening shot.