The romantic drama The Vow is not adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel though I doubt its producers would be offended if you’d assumed otherwise. In fact I suspect they’re banking on it. The film’s stars Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum are both recognized veterans of the Sparks subgenre – she gave us the indelible (for better or worse) Notebook while he starred in the somewhat less successful Dear John. Moreover its premise pitting love against the insidious after-effects of brain trauma may be inspired by a true story but its one-two punch of tragedy and sentiment is straight out of Sparks’ tear-jerking playbook.
It’s all there in The Vow’s opening montage which first introduces Leo (Tatum) and Paige (McAdams) two desperately smitten bohemian-artist types (she’s a sculptor; he’s a musician/studio owner) and then rudely separates them all in one slick heartbreaking sequence. There’s the meet-cute at the DMV the whirlwind courtship the quirky marriage proposal the kitschy guerrilla wedding (replete with vows scrawled on restaurant menus) and finally the brutal car accident glimpsed in agonizing slow-motion that leaves poor Paige in a coma.
When Paige awakens in the hospital Leo is aghast to discover his wife doesn’t recognize him. While her girl-next-door beauty emerged from the crash remarkably intact it seems her brain did not fare so well suffering injuries that effectively wiped out her memory of the preceding five years – a span comprising the entirety of her relationship with Leo. Her mind’s clock rewound a half-decade Paige assumes the identity of Paige from five years prior like a rebooted computer whose owner neglected to backup the hard drive in a timely manner.
It soon becomes achingly apparent that the Paige from five years prior was markedly different from the Paige we met in the opening credits: a superficial sorority girl on track for a law degree averse to city-dwelling partial to blueberry mojitos cowed by her domineering father (Sam Neill) and engaged to a corporate douche (Scott Speedman). Upon emerging from her slumber she finds the remnants from her old life all-too-eager to re-assimilate their lost lamb into the Bourgeois Borg even if she does have one of those icky tattoos.
In danger of losing the love of his life to her former one a heartbroken Leo resolves to win back Paige even if it means starting from scratch and wooing her all over again. Aligned against him are the grim realities of brain damage as well as Paige’s family and former fiancé whose cult-like efforts at re-education seem ever-creepier the more I contemplate them. (There are unintentional echoes of Total Recall in Paige’s arc which I suppose would make Leo her Kuato.)
Cultishness and Total Recall allusions notwithstanding The Vow flirts with a more unsettling notion one seemingly at odds with the romantic drama mission implying that what we know as love is simply the product of our memories tenuous and transient and not the profound transcendent bond that Hallmark promised.
Fear not: The Vow is by no means a dense metaphysical treatise. Director Michael Sucsy (Grey Gardens) and is far more concerned with heart-tugging than thought-provoking. To that end he steers admirably clear of grand epiphanies and other moments of high melodrama preferring instead to apportion the sap relatively evenly throughout the story. The strategy is less manipulative but also less impactful. The script from Abby Kohn Marc Silverstein and Jason Katims can’t maintain the energy of its opening act and apart from its brain damage twist is a tediously familiar romantic-drama slog. I found myself secretly rooting for some old-fashioned emotional overkill if only to alleviate the boredom.
The two leads for their part form a charming pair. McAdams is as endearing as ever working well within her comfort zone and equally likable Tatum bears his character’s anguish ably even if he’ll never be credible as a bohemian-artist type. Their easy appealing chemistry might be enough to satisfy the Sparks-philes but it’s not enough to sustain the film.
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Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) doesn't like to call attention to himself. He flies under the radar of his small town only leaving his garage apartment to go to church and work. He's not much of a conversationalist in general and talking to women--even sweet co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner)--leaves him utterly tongue-tied. Until the advent of Bianca that is. Long-limbed silken-haired and angelically selfless Bianca is also a mail-order sex doll. But to Lars she's the living breathing embodiment of his feminine ideal. After local doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) pronounces Lars delusional and advises his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) to humor him until he works through whatever issues have prompted his break from reality the whole town gets on board accepting Bianca as one of their own to help make Lars happy. Gosling--who's earned a reputation as one of the best actors of his generation in films as diverse as The Notebook and Half Nelson--continues his streak of impressive performances in Lars. Tremulous tentative and tenderhearted Gosling ensures that Lars is never ridiculous...which isn't an easy feat when you're having imaginary conversations with an inanimate latex mannequin. You can see why everyone wants to help/humor him; crushing Lars' happiness would be like swatting a scared puppy with a newspaper. But Lars isn't the only character in the movie; he's surrounded by several excellent "real girls." Clarkson is both confident and vulnerable as Dagmar offering Lars the infinite patience and understanding he needs; Mortimer is earnest and funny as Karin; and Garner is charmingly authentic (and impressively understanding) as ever-hopeful Margo. It would be all too easy for a movie like Lars and the Real Girl to fall victim to its own quirkiness. But director Craig Gillespie--in his feature-film debut--keeps things just grounded enough to be believable. Somehow you buy the fact that the townspeople would not only accept but embrace Bianca. A lot of that is thanks to the talented cast and writer Nancy Oliver's script which balances moments of silly humor and absurdity with scenes of heartfelt drama (her time as a scribe on Six Feet Under probably helped in that regard). But Gillespie deserves credit too. Like its hero Lars isn't perfect--it feels a bit long and the central concept may be just a little too off-beat for some--but it has a good heart and means well and you'll want to stick around to see how it turns out.