"The Notebook" is a dusky movie. It begins in twilight and ends there two hours later. A plucky sudser about young lovers in 1940s North Carolina adapted from Nicholas Sparks's bestseller, the story is frequently interrupted by trips to a modern-day nursing home to remind the romantics in the audience that love doesn't die. But it does get gray.
The movie invites us to watch two comely ingenues -- Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams -- fall in love in 1940, then separate just before the start of World War II. Noah Calhoun (Gosling) and Allie Hamilton (McAdams) have one of those passionate affairs that spans both sides of the tracks. She's filthy rich. He's not, but, for what it's worth, he does aspire to build the girl the house of her dreams. Allie's cartoonishly snobby parents don't care. Her father (David Thornton) wears a bushy black mustache that might as well be wax. Joan Allen phones in her part as the forbidding mother, and her performance might be made of wax, too.
Allie fights her folks' demand that she stop spending so much time with Noah and his genial dad (Sam Shepard) at their country shack. But he martyrs himself and breaks things off. She moves away, and he writes her a letter a day for a year, during which time Mrs. Hamilton hoards them, as a decent evil mother must. In the 14 intervening years, Noah goes off to war and grows a beard, and Allie goes to Sarah Lawrence, where she volunteers as a nurse and cares for Lon Hammond (James Marsden), a handsome lawyer who hails from old money. Noah, meanwhile, returns from overseas, buries his father, and gets to work on building that dream house, which, upon completion, is featured in the local paper. Just as she's being fitted for her wedding dress, Allie sees it and promptly passes out. She pays a visit to Noah, and to the house, and the movie takes its time telling us which man Allie will choose. Although you don't have to be a genius to figure it out.
McAdams gave a sharp performance as the chief meanie in "Mean Girls." It was easy to forget her, because, frankly, I didn't think I'd be seeing much of her other than in parts as shallow vipers. Here, she's soulfully committed to the suds in the story and fiercely attentive to the other actors. I like watching her watch people, especially Gosling, who stares back hard enough to bore holes. Roles in "The Believer" and "Murder by Numbers" have demonstrated that Gosling is adept at playing sociopaths and intense brooders, and there's reason to think, early on, that Noah might be similarly off, as when he threatens to drop from a Ferris wheel unless Allie agrees to go on a date with him. There's only one note to a Gosling performance -- long-faced determination -- but he's good at playing it.
Occasionally, "The Notebook" leaps forward decades to show James Garner reading this tale of the young and the passionate to Gena Rowlands, who's playing a woman who has terrible Alzheimer's but can focus enough on Garner's light fable to find it addictive. Who is this man, and what is he to this story, she seems to wonder.
As adapted by Jan Sardi and Jeremy Leven and directed by Nick Cassavetes, Rowlands's son, "The Notebook" is two movies, one dubiously hitched to the other, like "On Golden Pond" stuffed inside some young-adult romance. I didn't read Sparks's novel. But the trailer more or less tells you how the present relates to the past. Was it even a secret in the book?
Regardless, I realized that because the movie is less than conventionally structured, my anticipation for a last-minute bait-and-switch among the characters (Will Garner turn out to be someone other than the person you know he is? Will Rowlands?) was really just an enjoyable enough wait for the other shoe to drop, which it does.
Rowlands's character's dementia turns her violent, and it's all Garner can do to watch. Why Cassavetes would want to steer his mother to this level of discomfort is a question for the family therapist, but she does give one of her more interesting recent performances. Still, considering the sunny, relatively pleasurable romantic business that precedes it, the elderly stuff seems dark, morbid, and forced upon us.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.