Okay, guys, 'fess up. Though few of us males go willingly to the likes of 'Sleepless in Seattle' and 'The Bridges of Madison County,' I'd wager a good many of you end up appreciating such romantic films more than you'd care to admit. Of course, men don't actually cry at these movies (shame on me for even suggesting such a thing!), but maybe, just maybe, you've felt that telltale lump in the throat and furtively swatted away a few stray tears as the hero and heroine reunite or bid a bittersweet final farewell. I know I have. But before anyone gets the warped impression that my favorite pastime involves parking myself on the couch in front of the latest Lifetime TV movie with a box of Kleenex close at hand, let me clarify my statement. For me, the best romantic dramas aren't just about the glory and pain of love; no, to truly succeed and provoke an intense emotional response, a hefty amount of doom or strife must threaten and test the amorous couple. In short, the story's got to have some guts. 'The Notebook,' though pretty to look at and featuring a fine cast, only briefly sinks its teeth into a substantive issue, and that's at the very end of the film, long after our cravings for depth have subsided. Most of the movie marches amiably along, but wades through shallow waters, all the while dripping the kind of Hallmark card sentiment that leaves a treacly aftertaste and requires a strong shot of Listerine to eradicate.
Based on the wildly popular novel by Nicholas Sparks, who specializes in dewy, hyper-sensitive fare, 'The Notebook' explores such well-worn romantic themes as fate, destiny, and both the transformative and celestial power of true love. Ryan Gosling plays Noah, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks country boy who spots spirited rich girl Allie (Rachel McAdams) at a Carolina town fair in the summer of 1940. Instantly smitten, he pursues her with typical teen vigor and a rocky romance ensues, complicated by her disapproving parents, social barriers, divergent future paths, and that trusty movie staple that mucks up many couplings, nobility. The lovers physically part, but remain spiritually connected for years, never finding the same passion or connection with anyone else. It's only a matter of time, of course, before they find each other again, but in the interim much has changed – Allie is now involved with Lon (James Marsden), an upper class war vet, so it's uncertain whether she and Noah can recapture what they've lost. Running concurrently to this nostalgic tale is a present day thread involving an Alzheimer's patient (Gena Rowlands) and the stranger (James Garner) who reads the story of Noah and Allie to her from a hand-written notebook.
Sparks wisely keeps his yarn free of melodramatic clutter, and the simple storytelling is one of the film's strengths. Yet the romance lacks sufficient tension. Both Noah and Lon are such good guys, I was rooting for each of them to win over Allie. Sure, I leaned a bit more toward Noah, but not enough to really stoke my emotions. The film also takes its time developing Noah and Allie's relationship early in the film, and not much of interest transpires during their period of mutual discovery. Unfortunately, director Nick Cassavetes (Rowlands' son) does little to help things along; despite several gorgeous landscape shots and a nice feel for period detail, his direction is largely uninspired. He coaxes fine performances from his actors (Garner is especially heartbreaking toward the end), but seems constricted by and ill-at-ease with the vanilla-flavored material. It's no wonder he chose the edgy, violent, and undoubtedly liberating 'Alpha Dog' as his next project.
Despite such hiccups, 'The Notebook' held my interest, and that's largely due to its formidable cast, which labors valiantly to breathe life into the material. Gosling, at first glance, seems ill-equipped to handle such a sensitive, gooey role, but he quickly grows on us, and his natural acting style helps him shun the traditional leading man mold. McAdams is luminous one moment and self-conscious the next, but Gosling keeps her grounded, and their above-average chemistry allows them to create notable heat during their (elongated) love scenes. Few actresses can match the craftsmanship of Rowlands – her mellifluous contralto alone mesmerizes – and though she's given little to do here, she makes the most of her brief scenes. Ditto Garner, Marsden, Sam Shepard, and the always marvelous Joan Allen as Allie's rigid, controlling mother.
Like many pedestrian entries in the romance genre, 'The Notebook' is a shameless master of manipulation. Just when we're sure we've figured out the plot's thinly veiled twist, the script throws a misleading curveball just to string us along and keep us guessing. Worse, when the film reaches a logical, resonant ending point, it foolishly continues on for several more minutes until it reaches a ridiculous denouement that provokes as much incredulity as tears. While I stewed in my seat shaking my head, Cassavetes got the intended response from my wife, who dutifully cried on cue… but never lost her sense of clarity. "This is so stupid," she said as she dabbed her eyes. If only the film had ended a few minutes earlier, my opinion of it might have improved.
'The Notebook' is a classy production that glorifies love and shows how it enhances and defines our lives. As a wish-fulfillment fantasy, it satisfies – and I can appreciate its appeal in that regard – but for those, like me, who prefer their romance infused with realism, it doesn't make the grade.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Do we really need another bulky, expensive recycle of 'The Notebook'? (Does that question even require an answer?) Only four years ago, New Line marketed a cheesy Limited Edition Gift Set that included a photo album, saccharine stickers, and blank notecards. Now we have the similarly named and themed Ultimate Collector's Edition Gift Set that contains the exact same 1080p/VC-1 transfer, the exact same Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, and the exact same disc supplements. Only the packaging and swag are different, so unless you're a Ryan Gosling stalker or obsessed with anything and everything 'Notebook' related, there's absolutely no reason to double dip.
Thankfully, this new Ultimate Collector's Edition Gift Set isn't quite as girly in tone as its predecessor, but it's still infused with enough estrogen to attract the movie's rabid fan base. Gone is the elephntine book packaging; in its stead, we have a typically flimsy box that measures 6-3/4" high-by-1-3/4" wide-by-5-1/2" deep. Inside, there's a standard Blu-ray case that holds both the Blu-ray disc and a standard-def DVD; a leaflet with a code to access and download the film's Ultraviolet Digital Copy; an envelope housing six 6-1/2"-by-5" glossy color postcards of Ryan and Rachel with meaningful quotes from the movie plastered across them; a similarly sized hardcover 96-page blank journal in which you can record the salacious details of your own passionate affair; and, best of all, a heart-shaped silver locket with chain. Whether all that is worth the hefty $50 list price tag is up to you.
Once the disc is inserted into the player, a standard Blu-ray promo pops up, followed immediately by the beginning of the movie. There is no main menu. Audio options and special features can be accessed by pressing the menu button on your remote.
This is the exact same transfer as the one that graced the 2009 Limited Edition Giftset version of 'The Notebook.' Here's what I said about it four years ago...
'The Notebook' arrives on Blu-ray with a lush, finely detailed 1080p transfer that faithfully honors both its contemporary and period storylines. A warm, nostalgic glow bathes the 1940s sequences, while a crisper, cooler look distinguishes the modern scenes. Landscapes are often breathtaking, with the vivid and intensely saturated colors often reminding me of three-strip Technicolor. Red splashes of nail polish and lipstick provide marvelous visual accents, foliage greens vary appropriately in tone, and the textures and creases of clothing –- whether it's a felt hat, satin blouse, or wool trouser –- are well rendered. Fleshtones err slightly on the rosy side, and whites tend to run a bit hot, but black levels remain solid and rich throughout, and shadow detail, even during night scenes, is strong.
Light grain maintains the film-like feel, but never detracts from image clarity. In one scene, Noah and Allie lay down on a town street and the individual pebbles in the pavement are strikingly distinct. Close-ups possess marvelous detail as well, with pale freckles, pores, and even the fine hairs on McAdams' face clearly visible. There are a couple of instances of faint, fleeting mosquito noise and a bit of edge enhancement, but for the most part, the image is stable and vibrant. A big upgrade from the previous DVD release, this is a very nice effort from New Line, one that will surely thrill the film's legion of fans.
New Line also sticks with the same audio options. Here's my 2009 review of the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track...
A quiet film like 'The Notebook' doesn't require too many bells and whistles in the audio department, but the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track adds lovely atmosphere to the sumptuous images. Surround use is subtle but noticeable - the faint sound of chirping crickets during evening scenes nicely envelops, and a driving downpour with thunderclap accents later in the film almost made me want to jump up and make sure my windows were closed.
Dialogue is well prioritized throughout, with only a few muffled lines during cluttered audio moments, and distinct stereo separation across the front channels provides good directional sweep during motion sequences. Although the film possesses few .LFE opportunities, bass is strong and powerful during isolated instances, most notably the brief World War II bombing scene. Aaron Zigman's score is unobtrusive, but still enjoys fine presence and a warm depth of tone.
All in all, the well-balanced mix enhances the on-screen action without grabbing too much attention, and serves the film well.
All the extras from the previous Limited Edition Giftset (all of which also appeared on the original DVD edition) have been ported over to this release, which means, once again, that aside from the locket, postcards, and diary, fans are getting nothing new here.
If you crave a good cry and like your romance sweet and pure, then 'The Notebook' is for you. Its top-notch production values, fine acting, and dual storylines make it go down easy, but it's not a very nourishing dish. What's probably not for you - unless you're one of the film's most enthusiastic groupies - is this Ultimate Collector's Edition Gift Set...especially if you already own the 2009 Limited Edition Gift Set. The same transfers and extras have been recycled here, and though the swag is different (and a bit classier), it's not special enough to merit the inflated price tag, especially when the standard Blu-ray is selling for $9.99 at online retailers. If you've never seen 'The Notebook,' it's definitely worth a look, but the disc-only edition should suffice. This bloated package will only appeal to and satisfy the obsessive fan.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.