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Mon, 13 Feb 2012
By Thomas Leupp
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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