Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Weepy "Vow" acceptable for what it is

The Vow (2012)
104 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -
Though pre-sold as a goopy Nicholas Sparks sudser, with the trailer advertising attractive Sparks film alums Rachel McAdams from "The Notebook" and Channing Tatum from "Dear John," it's a surprise Sparks did not write the source material. More importantly, with much surprise, "The Vow" is perfectly acceptable for what it is as an earnest three-hanky romance. 

When we first see Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum), they're already in love with a most certainly bright future. Driving home from the Music Box Theater in snowy Chicago, the couple stops at a stop sign, only to be literally plowed by a snowplow. Paige is propelled head-first through the car windshield and into a coma. After she awakens in the hospital, she has no memory of Leo and their marriage from a brain injury. Then we go back four years ago through Leo's memories of how Leo met his free-thinking, vegetarian art student at the DMV, how he wooed her with boxes of cold medicine and lingerie when she was sick, how they moved into a beautiful loft apartment, and how they were illegally married in the Art Institute. Leo takes Paige "home" to get her back to her normal routine, but she thinks she's a WASPy law student, the same person she was before her life with Leo. She can't remember why she estranged herself from her stuffy, uptight parents (Jessica Lange, Sam Neill), who are transparently disapproving of Leo upon first meeting, or why she called off the engagement with then-fiancee Jeremy (Scott Speedman), who comes back into Paige's life. Leo could walk away, but he fights for her, tries taking her down memory lane, and will do anything to make his wife fall back in love with him. Sounds like a lot of hard work.

The film is based on a true story, that of Southwestern couple Kim and Krickitt Carpenter who suffered the same situation in 1993 (and are credited in a photograph before the end credits). That might be true of the ripped-from-the-headline premise, but not the particulars (the Carpenters have even lamented the film's lack of Christian references). Screenwriters Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Jason Katims (without any credit to the Carpenter's book The Vow) practically give us "50 First Dates" without as many laughs but just about the same sweetness. Sincerely directed by Michael Sucsy (HBO's "Grey Gardens), "The Vow" is finally a romantic drama that, on the whole, is more concerned with the people at hand than manufactured plot points. In the wrong hands, this story might've been a wish-fulfillment fantasy by Paige magically having her memory restored, but that's not the case here. Aside from a family secret kept from Paige that's revealed late in the film and feels like a convenient catalyst to get the lovebirds back together, the rest dares to not take easy exits. What pulls it through are the characters' sense of communication with each other. Problems are resolved with a simple conversation that boneheaded characters in modern Hollywood romances rarely ever have. And what really works is Leo's complete devotion to his wife and Paige's amnesia that's not curable but only partially earned over time with a little hole-filling. 

"The Vow" isn't without its problems, primarily in the writing department. Characters' choices and motives are often hard to swallow. For instance, Leo throws Paige a surprise party immediately after she's discharged from the hospital. Paige's friend says they didn't want to overwhelm her, but she must need some new friends if they thought a surprise party wouldn't overwhelm someone who doesn't remember the last four years. The next morning, after Paige stays at their loft for the first night, Leo decides to let her stay "home" while he goes off to work at his music recording studio. Naturally, Paige goes out without her cell phone and gets lost. Later, when Jeremy enters the picture, he's simply taking advantage of Paige's brain injury, but completely forgets about his present girlfriend? Also, the film didn't really need the metaphor-heavy voice-over narration by Leo, or be so on-the-nose with Paige and Leo's first-date place being called Cafe Mnemonic ("mnemonic" meaning memory).

The two appealing stars are so genetically perfect that a more regular-looking couple might've been preferred, but since this is a Hollywood production, they work well together anyway with the necessary charisma and chemistry. Acting-wise, the lovely McAdams is in the toughest spot, as she must give us an independent-minded young woman reverting back to her conservative pre-Leo days, but pulls it off with empathy. Her facial expressions of confusion and lack of recall, when she listens to an old voicemail to Leo from herself or watches her wedding video, never hit a false note. Tatum, who has proven to be more demonstrative than just a hunky, stilted G.I. Joe, is just as appealing here with a key sensitivity that puts us on Leo's side. Female viewers will coo at Channing's shirtless and bottomless scenes, while the males will guffaw at the actor wearing a turtleneck sweater. But he's a role model of patience and wooing for men everywhere. 

Supporting spots for Leo and Paige's friends aren't just sassy, sex-advice-giving stereotypes but artsy, Boho-chic hipsters. Tatiana Maslany, in particular, is likable and down-to-earth as Leo's loyal business assistant Lily, and refreshingly never becomes the girl that tries stealing the leading man. As Paige's folks, Lange and Neill are introduced in a selfish, antagonistic light at first, nearly revisiting the unhinged shades of their respective roles in "Hush" and "In the Mouth of Madness." But in one pivotal moment, Lange especially sheds more layers of suffering and desperation than the role initially suggests. Neill's unreasonable behavior eventually evolves as well, but Speedman's character fully remains an uninteresting plot device. 

Without any curveball cancer subplots or ridiculous twists, the film is honest with itself. It doesn't go out of its way to manipulate us into weeping buckets into our kleenex. It just asks you to invest in this couple, and that's not hard to do with Paige and Leo. They're honest with one another, and Leo accepts Paige for who she is, not whom he wants her to be. Emotional sense, right there! "The Vow" won't change your life, but on its own merits, it knows what it is: a pleasant, emotionally engaging date movie for romantic suckers with little eye-rolling.

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