Considering the maudlin nature of romance films we’ve seen starring both Channing Tatum ("Dear John") and Rachel McAdams ("The Notebook"), their new film "The Vow" is far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
It’s a sappy tearjerker about a young woman named Paige (McAdams) who loses the last five years of her memory, which include meeting and marrying her husband Leo (Tatum), due to amnesia brought on by a car accident. But at the same time, it has none of the self-importance or cliché romantic moments that plagued the entirety of "The Notebook," and instead remains far more interested in the characters than it is in the plot conflict that plagues them. It’s conventional, but also unrelentingly engaging.
Indeed, director Michael Sucsy mines the plot not for sentimental moments, but rather for character observation. I honestly think the narrative is a thought-provoking conceit: if five years of your life were erased, what would you do - embrace the decisions you can’t even remember, or start back where your memory left off? Do you even trust yourself enough to think you made the right decisions? Could you ignore emotions you’re feeling simply because they wore off in a life you cannot remember? And would the people around use the injury to cover up all the horrible things they’ve spent the past five years doing? Sure, some may say the plot is incredibly convenient, built not for realism but rather for romance. Still, the questions it asks are legitimate, and to discount that would be very unfair.
There’s a dark and subversive edge to this film that I can’t help but admire: in a sense, it’s a cute romantic film about how terrible people really are. Sam Neill and Jessica Lange play Paige’s parents, and they absolutely embrace the idea of their daughter’s brain trauma; excited by the potential to re-writing history that it offers. Paige hasn’t spoken to them in 5 years, and while the reason why is the films central mystery (it doesn’t pay off well,) it’s the behavior that truly interests me. They cover up past mistakes, dissuade interests they know were crucial to her life after they stopped speaking, and essentially do everything they possibly can to cut Leo out of her existence.
They would come off as one-note villains, but the truth is that everyone in this movie is heavily flawed; Sucsy does not romanticize his characters virtue. Paige’s ex-fiancé cruelly uses the opportunity to try and avoid past mistakes, her sister covers up the family history, and her friends are shrewish and unsympathetic to her injury. Even Paige herself becomes cold and uncaring; constantly insulting and berating the man who loves her simply because she’s so frustrated about her memory (and Tatum, the narrator and thus the de-facto hero, has his fair share of cold moments and boneheaded decisions.) This is hardly a cynical film, but Sucsy manages to create a portrait of flawed humanity and of people doing their best to further their own cause in the background of a Hollywood romance - it’s a flourish I applaud.
And the acting is, while unremarkable, certainly entertaining enough to make this an above average date movie. Rachel McAdams is constantly giving one of two performances - the hateful wench character she mastered in "Mean Girls" and "Midnight in Paris," and the adorable dream girl she played in "Wedding Crashers" or "The Notebook." In this movie, she gets to play both! In the flashback scenes, with her and Leo in love; she’s an inspired painter and devoted to him for every second - she plays every moment with a glorious smile and love in her eyes. After her amnesia, she becomes a cold-blooded "sorority sister" law student, insulting her own art and making things as difficult for Leo as humanely possible. And in these scenes, she’s playing an entirely different character - hate in her eyes, scornful line readings, and engaging in purposefully obnoxious banter with the people we know are manipulating her. It may not qualify as great acting range, but it certainly keeps things interesting.
But it’s Channing Tatum who steals the show. Between this and the magnificent "Haywire," I’m becoming very sold on his potential as both a great character actor and a legitimate movie star. Admittedly, he has trouble with the grand romantic moments here; he (and McAdams) can’t pull off the chemistry. But in the small character moments, when he’s awkwardly fumbling around a first date with a stilt in every sentence, or trying to bullshit his way through an interpretation of Paige’s art, Tatum shines as an actor with unlimited personality. He’s hilarious, he has presence, and he dominates your attention even in scenes with veterans like Neill or Lange.
Considering the tradition it comes from, "The Vow" is much better than I ever would have expected. It’s smaller in scope than the aforementioned epic romances ("Notebook" and "Dear John") but I count that as a positive: it’s more interested in its characters than in manipulative plot devices. And even in its finale it doesn’t devolve into total cliché; I won’t spoil the ending but it’s far more original than a slow motion reunion kiss or a heartbreaking incident of tragedy. "The Vow" may not have had the sweeping emotion necessary to have everyone in the theater crying, but it’s certainly not short on charm.