I was really hoping for this year’s Bridges of Madison County, a big-budget production that turned a mediocre weepie book into a better-than-mediocre weepie movie. I held my handkerchief in my hand, but no tears came. Instead, the full-scale Hollywood treatment just emphasizes the inadequacy of the source material. Exquisite cinematography, appealing themes, and some real-deal movie stars are not enough to make this syrupy saga worth watching.
A man comes to read to a woman in a nursing home. It is a story about a summer romance between Allie (Rachel McAdams), the daughter of wealthy parents, and Noah (Ryan Gosling) a poor boy. A montage later, they are crazy about each other. But her parents suddenly decide they have to break up and they send her to school up north. He writes to her every day. She never responds.
Then he goes off to fight in World War II and she falls in love with a handsome wounded officer named Lon (James Marsden) and agrees to marry him. But she sees Noah’s picture in the newspaper. He is restoring the house he once told her he would make into a home for the two of them, which of course requires another montage. Even though she has all but forgotten him and is perfectly happy being engaged to Lon, she has to see Noah once more. And after she sees him, she has to decide which man is the one she really loves.
As this story is read aloud, the woman in the nursing home listens attentively, occasionally almost seeming to recognize some of it. This couple’s relationship to the people in the story will not come as a surprise to anyone.
But the real problem with the film is that the details and dialogue are so crashingly clumsy that they bring any momentum in the movie to a screeching halt. Noah sees Allie and is immediately smitten. So far, so good. He climbs up a moving ferris wheel to ask her out, even though she is riding it with her boyfriend. Okay. But then she responds by pulling down his pants. Huh? He finally persuades her to go out on a date with him, basically by nagging her, and then the big moment on the date when they realize how perfect they are for each other comes when he persuades her to lie down in the middle of the street with him.
Later there is the exchange with her fiance, when she realizes that something is missing in her life but somehow doesn’t want to admit that what is missing is Noah. So she charges into Lon’s office in the middle of a meeting to tell him that she once used to want to paint but somehow has stopped painting. He responds supportively and reasonably, if unmemorably, “Well, paint!”
And what is the deal with Allie’s mother? Her parents seem fine with the romance with Noah at first until one late night makes them think that it is all too serious and she has to be sent away. Then, when Allie goes back to see Noah, her mother comes to get her and tries to show her that she should go back to Lon by driving past her own lost love for a longing gaze.
We never believe in Allie’s feelings for Noah or Lon, partly because none of them ever come alive as characters. It’s all description, not depiction. We do care about the couple in the nursing home, but the connection to the other story is never strong enough to keep our attention.
Gosling is one of the most talented actors of his generation, but he flounders in this role. Garner, Rowlands, Sam Shepherd as Noah’s father and Joan Allen as Allie’s mother give the material much more than it deserves, and director Nick Cassavettes clearly wants this film to be a love letter to Rowlands, his mother. She is luminous, and we do believe she could inspire great love. Too bad it’s not in a great movie.
Parents should know that the movie has explicit sexual references and situations for a PG-13. A teenage couple agree to have sex, but then she becomes very flustered and anxious. An engaged girl has sex with a man who is not her fiance. Characters drink and smoke. The movie has brief battle violence, some graphic injuries, and some poignant deaths. The themes of the movie may be upsetting to some viewers.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that diseases like Alzheimer’s affect the family and how they can best respond. They should also talk about how we know who we are meant to be with and who we should listen to as we think about making that choice. A character in this movie says, “I’ve loved another with all my heart and soul and for me that has been enough.” Is that enough for you?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy A Walk to Remember and Message in a Bottle, based on books by the same author, Nicholas Sparks.