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Photograph by Melissa Mosely

The Floating News: Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams enjoy a lazy interlude in 'The Notebook.'

Quicksand

Nicholas Sparks strikes again: 'The Notebook' is '50 First Dates' for the geriatric set

By Richard von Busack

WHEN I WAS 12, my friend Christian Sunoo was an extra on the set of the TV pilot for the series of Kung Fu, which was filming on the Camelot castle set at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. Since the studio was mostly deserted—the movie business was going through one of its contractions—I got to hang out there while they drilled the little bald-wigged apprentice monks in martial-arts moves. One day, there was a small commotion up the dirt road that led to the Western town set: it was James Garner walking down the trail, escorted by a small throng of children—like me, the idling friends of the extras. I'd just read a flattering article about Garner and told him so. As this was the far past, and adults still were unafraid to put their arms on the shoulders of strange children, Garner did so. At an early age, I learned what a movie star ought to be: larger than life and magnanimous, and cheerful and handsome, a kind of conduit of confidence, so to speak, to the most shy and uncertain kid.

In Nick Cassavetes' saccharine The Notebook, based on a terrible Nicholas Sparks novel, I think Garner is great. But it's best not to trust my word. He looks as hale as he can under the circumstances, and his voice is still robust. He's kept what's left of his hair, which is today in an old man's curls at the back of his neck, a la Michael Caine—and Caine's playing the kind of roles Garner ought to be garnering.

The actor plays Noah, the visitor of an aged woman, Allie (Gena Rowlands), at an old-folks home; his faithful task is to read to her from a book that contains a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl tale. We soon realize (choke) that this is the tale of their own love, lost in the lady's memory because of senile dementia. Garner and Rowlands understand what it's like to be "heading toward the end zone" as Hank Hill put it, and their scenes are acquitted with more dignity than the script or the story deserves. Otherwise, Cassavetes continues to run the family business into the ground.

The backstory is the killer. Rachel McAdams is often accidentally funny as the young Allie, the fiery rich girl drawn to young Southern working-class Whitman quoter Noah (Ryan Gosling), a coupling opposed by frustrated rich mom Joan Allen. It's a story distilled from 1,000 bad movies into a gelatinous concentrate. And this thick mixture isn't thinned by the heavy narration explaining every detail. (When the girl becomes a nurse during the Big One, we're told, "To her, the broken men and shattered bodies were all Noah.") The elderly Noah tells us he's a simple man with simple thoughts, but the young Gosling tries to play him as a daredevil, a man no one would call ordinary. Later, when he sinks into a swamp of pining for his girl, it looks as if this highly talented young actor has changed tactics. He's trying underacting in the same way a man caught in quicksand will give up struggling, on the grounds that fighting only makes it worse.


The Notebook (PG-13; 112 min.), directed by Nick Cassavetes, written by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, photographed by Robert Fraisse and starring James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, opens Friday.


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Web extra to the June 23-29, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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