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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The romantic action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is like nothing — and if you’re a person between the age of approximately 18 to 35 everything — you’ve seen before. British director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead Hot Fuzz) adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novel is so densely laden with pop-culture references it often times feels less like a movie than a mixtape. Those who share the tastes of the film’s 31-year-old writer and 35-year-old director will find the experience to be exhilarating; those who don’t however will likely be at a loss to comprehend what all the fuss is about.
The list of ‘80s and ‘90s video game nods in Pilgrim alone is daunting: Tekken Super Mario Bros. Tetris Zelda and even retro titles like Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man are represented just to name a few. To fit all of it in Wright must practically invent a brand-new kind of filmmaking. Using techniques and iconography culled from the holy fanboy triumvirate of comic books video games and anime/manga and armed with a clearly generous effects budget he splatters the screen with a dazzling array of CGI visual aids as the action unfolds: informational pop-ups supply key details on each character as they are introduced; words like “Boom!” and “Pow!” burst forth when blows are landed during fight sequences; a “Level Up!” graphic indicating increased levels of key character attributes appears after the film’s hero triumphs in battle. Even the old Universal Studios logo has been revamped by Wright rendered in the rudimentary graphics and sound of the old 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Call it easter-egg filmmaking.
At the center of this digital maelstrom is Scott Pilgrim a 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif played by 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif Michael Cera. Unemployed and in no great rush to find work he splits his time evenly between jamming with his middling band Sex Bob-Omb (a Super Mario Bros. reference) combing thrift shops for new additions to his near-limitless collection of ironic t-shirts and pining for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a beguiling New York City emigre whose signature attribute is her constantly-changing hair color.
After a few abortive encounters Scott finally gets Ramona to reciprocate his affections. Thus begins the quest — or "campaign " as gamers call it — portion of the film as Scott soon discovers that in order to secure Ramona’s hand he must defeat each of her seven evil exes (six boys and one girl) in spontaneous death matches of decreasing novelty. (A few of them could easily have been excised without harming the narrative but that might invite the ire of comic book fans who typically demand nothing less than absolute adherence to the source text.) With a variety of found power-ups and an entirely implausible collection of fancy kung-fu moves he faces off against among others a pompous vegan straight-edge (Brandon Routh) a self-absorbed action star (Chris Evans) a spiteful lesbian (Mae Whitman) and a smarmy record producer (Jason Schwartzman).
I expect Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will polarize audiences and not just because of Wright’s distinctively dizzying directorial style. (Which I thoroughly enjoyed even though it occasionally overdoses on manufactured quirk and is a bit too proud of its cleverness.) The film glosses over Scott and Ramona’s wooing process in its rush to commence with its succession of comic-book battles which grow somewhat tedious toward the end. It’s simply assumed that Ramona would fall for our protagonist as it’s likewise assumed that we already have. But not everyone will embrace Scott’s castrati hipster affect which too often comes across as grating rather than charming. (The movie’s funniest moments come courtesy of Scott’s sassy gay roommate played by Kieran Culkin who is never without a clever barb for his lovelorn pal.) And beneath Cera’s self-effacing sheen exists an unmistakable whiff of pretentiousness that isn’t entirely justified — at least not yet. Far less debatable is the appeal of Winstead whose spunky Ramona appears every bit worth the hassle of fending off seven or more ex-lovers.
God knows what she sees in him.