Based on the bestseller by Nicolas Sparks the film begins with Duke (James Garner) and Allie (Gena Rowlands) an inseparable couple living in a nursing home. While Duke remembers their life together Allie who suffers from progressive dementia does not. Their only bond is a faded notebook from which Duke reads to Allie every day telling her the same story over and over. It's a sweeping tale of two South Carolina teens country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) and city gal Allie (Rachel McAdams) who spend one glorious summer in the early 1940s falling madly in love. Unfortunately the couple is soon separated first by her disapproving parents and then by World War II but after seven years apart after taking different paths they are passionately reunited. There's a catch though; Allie is now faced to choose between the man she once loved and the successful businessman (James Marsden) she is engaged to. It's really no surprise who the young Allie chooses in the end--but for Duke the only thing that keeps him going is the fact that every day somehow through the power of this story the mentally impaired Allie miraculously remembers their love if only for a very brief moment before slipping back into oblivion. Tears being jerked from your eyes yet?
The talented cast certainly elevates The Notebook's romantic drudgery. McAdams takes a departure from all the Mean Girls she's played lately (including The Hot Chick) and easily wins you over as the spirited young Allie while the usually intense Gosling also tackles something lighter so to speak than his previous darker roles such as his Jewish-turned-American Nazi leader in The Believer. While infusing a certain sense of brooding and melancholy into Noah especially in the years he spends pining for Allie Gosling manages to exude Noah's genuine warmth and sensitivity as well. And between the two of them real sparks fly as the actors paint a fresh and inviting picture of young love that stands the test of time. Marsden is completely wasted however as Allie's fiancé Lon a upstanding Southern gentleman Allie's parents expect her to marry who offers little as to why Allie should stay with him. As the older contingency veterans Garner and Rowlands who take the sappiest material and turn it into something meaningful inspire some truly heart-ripping moments as the aging couple holding onto their love as tight as they can. In the supporting cast Joan Allen has some shining moments as Allie's uptight mother with a secret of her own.
In bringing the popular novel about enduring love to life director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars) may have used his own experiences having seen his parents--the late John Cassavetes and his lady love and muse Gena Rowlands--play out their own real-life love affair. Cassavettes gets to the heart of the material right away and permeates the screen with the beautiful surroundings of South Carolina where The Notebook was filmed. We glide through lush moss-filled swamps and sleepy Southern towns marvel at languid shots of the South Carolina coastline. It's very clear Cassavetes has a way with actors much like his father did gently coaxing realistic performances from his young somewhat untested leads while allowing old guards like Garner and Rowlands to simply work their magic (imagine telling your Oscar-nominated mother how to act. Right). The problem is the story itself which not only offers nothing new to the romance genre but also isn't very compelling. There are no great tragedies (save perhaps for the whole dementia thing) no real villainous presence to keep the lovers apart no peril at all. It's boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl boy-wins-girl-back--ho-hum. Where's the sudsy soap opera when you need it?
A promising young playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) lives in New York far enough away from her Louisiana hometown. After she gives a damaging interview to Time magazine--damaging mainly to her mother Vivianne Abbott Walker (Ellen Burstyn) who doesn't take lightly to her daughter's intonations that she was not a good mother--the two women begin a feud. It threatens to destroy not only their relationship but Sidda's own plans to marry her longtime boyfriend Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Enter the Ya-Ya Sisterhood--Caro (Maggie Smith) Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight) Vivi's lifelong best friends. To bring mother and daughter back together the women decide it's time for Sidda to learn about the Divine Secrets of their little clique--and about her mother's painful past. They tell Sidda stories about the young Vivi (Ashley Judd) who was full of promise and hope but how certain tragic events damaged her. The bond between these four older women is unshakable and the most honest element to the film. The sad news for the novel's fans however is that while the script manages to convey the true spirit of friendship it can't quite capture the magic of the book.
In a cast of many the film is chock-full of wonderful performances but it's the matured Ya-Yas who steal the show. Smith plays the tough Caro a lifelong smoker now saddled with emphysema with all the biting wit the actress is best known for while Knight plays the sweet no-nonsense Necie with just a hint of sarcasm. Flanagan the best of the three shines as the wealthy Teensy a recovering alcoholic who has faced demons herself. Her exchanges are some of the more memorable especially when after being told by an angry Vivi that she could knock Teensy into next week Teensy tells her friend "And I'll kick your ass on Thursday." Yet the film truly belongs to Burstyn and Judd as the different faces of Vivi. Burstyn is all at once the highly dramatic Southern beauty who has come to terms with (or remained steeped in denial about however you look at it) her painful past while Judd gets to show us the nitty-gritty of what actually happened to Vivi to harden her. Unfortunately the weakest member of this ensemble cast is Bullock as Sidda. She never quite convinces us she grew up in such an eccentric and terribly Southern environment. And not to leave out the men completely--James Garner plays Sidda's father Shep with quiet patience having survived life with his lady love who never loved him quite the same in return. The devoted Connor mirrors Shep but MacFadyen plays him with a lot more backbone.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) couldn't have chosen a better film to make as her directorial debut. Sure she might be pigeonholed forever as the "chick flick" girl but she probably doesn't care much. Khouri had been approached to adapt Wells' novel a few times over the last couple of years but never had the time to do it. When the right time came along Khouri wisely decided it was also time to take on the directing chores. Even as a novice the writer/director shows us she knows her way around a camera. The film captures that Southern feel lush and languid as the moss drips down from the trees. She also knows how to handle her actors too and is able to elicit great performances (although with the likes of Burstyn and Smith this isn't hard to do). The soundtrack also is an added bonus with a variation of music from jazz to Louisiana Cajun. Yet even with all this going for it Divine Secrets misses a beat. In a novel it's great to read stories about an eccentric Southern family but to have vignettes told to you as a framework for a movie it can slow a film down. You probably won't be able to drag your husband to go see this one.