The story begins on an elegiac note, in a hospital for the elderly where a woman suffering from senile dementia (Gena Rowlands) looks out upon an idyllic lake. Fellow resident Duke (James Garner) visits daily to read to her from a notebook. The story he tells--and much of the rest of the film--centers on the romance between two teens who meet in June 1940. Country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling of "The Believer") falls hard for sophisticated Allie (Rachel McAdams of "Mean Girls"), recognizing a free spirit beneath the money and breeding. Her parents whisk her back to the city when things get serious, and World War II promptly intervenes to sever the tie completely. But seven years later, on the eve of Allie's wedding to a wealthy young man (James Marsden), she and Noah reconnect, and her neat life gets messy.
An adaptation of the novel by Nicholas Sparks, "The Notebook" avoids easy clichés. Allie's fiancé is a decent, sensitive guy and not the clueless bore typically seen in such setups. And Allie's mother (an outstanding turn from Joan Allen), seemingly heartless in her resolve to keep her daughter and Noah apart, turns out to have a poignant secret, confided to Allie in the strongest scene of the film. Still, there's a generic feel to the saga and, especially, the character of Allie. McAdams is believable as a headstrong but conflicted young woman, yet the script often substitutes attitude for character--such as in the early going, when lots of excited shrieking is meant to convey an independent streak. Besides Allen's fine work, the most compelling performances belong to Gosling and Garner, as men trying to break through various obstacles to love. The former is convincing whether in bold pursuit of the girl of his dreams or sunk in dissolution after the war. Striking South Carolina locations lend authenticity, but the highly art-designed, carefully composed widescreen visuals at times undercut the drama. Starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, James Marsden, Kevin Connolly, David Thornton, Jamie Anne Brown, Sam Shepard and Joan Allen. Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Written by Jeremy Leven. Produced by Mark Johnson and Lynn Harris. A New Line release. Romantic drama. Rated PG-13 for some sexuality. Running time: 124 min