The Notebook (2004)

Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Sam Shepard. New Line.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?D+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +1-2
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: A number of non-marital bedroom scenes of varying length and intensity (no explicit nudity); recurring profanity.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Noah spots Allie at the county fair, and the glint in his eye makes it plain that she’s The One. He asks her out, and won’t take no for an answer, flamboyantly leaping onto a moving Ferris wheel beside her and even dangling by one hand high above the fairground until she agrees to go out with him. She gets even, though, by unbuckling his trousers while he’s still hanging helplessly and pulling them down around his ankles.

Right there is Allie and Noah in a nutshell. Directed by Nick Cassavetes (John Q) from the tearjerker by Catholic novelist Nicholas Sparks (A Walk to Remember), The Notebook is about a couple whose budding relationship consists basically of three things:

  1. Doing cute / stupid / romantic / picturesque things. See Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) lie in the middle of a darkened intersection watching the traffic light change, then scramble for safety when a car comes! See Allie enjoying post-coital oil painting in the nude, wrapped in a sheet on the porch!
  2. Waging a battle of wills. Allie and Noah quarrel a lot, to the point that she starts smacking him when she gets angry enough.
  3. Getting way too forward with one another physically. Allie and Noah have a very physical relationship; even when Allie’s not smacking him, they can hardly keep their hands off one another.

As their relationship progresses, Allie and Noah just keep on doing the same three things, but on an ever-increasing scale. One night they decide to go all the way in a quaintly dilapidated old manor home that Noah wants to restore; hours later they’re breaking up with much shouting and smacking. (You might think there was some subtle point being made here about their inappropriate intimacy precipitating deeper conflict, but I’d be willing to bet that that thought is a lot deeper than this story.)

At this point Allie’s parents, who are from old Southern money and have never approved of dirt-poor Noah, contrive to separate the quarreling lovers. This naturally calls for a romantic picturesque gesture, which Noah provides in grand style first by sending Allie 365 letters every day for the next year, then by obsessively restoring that manor home as a monument to his undying love for her.

Small wonder, years later, when she learns what he’s done, that she begins to have second thoughts about the dashing and well-to-do but perhaps not quite as hopelessly romantic fiancé she’s acquired in the interim. (In a welcome departure from cliché, the luckless fiancé, played by James Marsden of the X-Men movies, actually seems to be both a good guy and a good catch.) Small wonder she decides to take a trip down memory lane, and winds up energetically making up for all that lost time, until Noah is plumb exhausted and can’t move until she gets up and makes him flapjacks.

A bit later, finally starting to come to grips with the necessity of choosing between her fiancé and her lover, Allie is told by her mother, “You knew what you were doing.” Allie’s oddly non sequitur reply is: “So I’m a tramp, is that it?” Perhaps this is the reply of a guilty conscience; the obvious answer would seem to be, “Well, dear, if the shoe fits…”

That’s about as close as The Notebook gets to connecting Allie and Noah’s cheerful carnality in any particular way to any moral principles. (There’s also a scene in which Allie’s hurt and bewildered fiancé responds with heroic forbearance to this betrayal.) In a larger sense, there’s nothing remotely cautionary or critical here; the drama seems to side solidly with the young lovers.

Of course, the above interpretation of events differs markedly from the account recorded in the titular notebook — hardly surprising, since the notebook was written by Allie herself. Allie and Noah’s young life together is seen in flashback; in the framing story, Allie is an old woman (Gena Rowlands) in a nursing home, and her mind is failing. She doesn’t recognize the old man (James Garner) who comes to visit her, or the story of young love he reads to her from an old notebook.

I suspect that at some point in the creative process the audience may have been meant to be in suspense whether the old man would turn out to be Noah or the fiancé, though at this point the most that can be said in that direction is that neither Gosling nor Marsden looks the slightest bit like a young James Garner.

Since Garner is obviously Noah, I’ll go ahead and say that there’s something very touching about old Noah’s steadfast devotion to Allie, not only till death do them part, but also for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Their story — the story of the aged Noah reading to addled Allie from the notebook a story that she sometimes feels she’s heard before — is far more evocative and interesting than the actual story in the notebook.

The notebook does contain one (1) scene that actually displays a bit of depth, in which Noah tells Allie that he knows that if they stick it out it will always be hard and that they’ll always fight, but that he wants to be with her anyway no matter what for the rest of their lives.

Yet while Allie and Noah do apparently stick it out for better for worse, in sickness and in health, is it clear that they ever actually marry? Certainly they spend their lives together — a scene with their numerous progeny confirms that — but is there ever an actual wedding?

Granted, lifelong cohabitation would be an oddity in that day and age. At the same time, a friend recalls one of the nurses addressing old Allie as “Miss Nelson” (her maiden name, Noah’s surname being Calhoun); and a wife keeping her maiden name would also surely be an oddity in that day and age.

Those who previously knew Sparks primarily as the author of the wholesomely pro-chastity A Walk to Remember are liable to be caught off-guard by The Notebook’s sex scenes, which are lit, choreographed, and edited to just this side of an R rating.

Sparks has commented that he would never write a love story about adultery, like Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, adultery being in his words “anathema to me.” Apparently, fornication isn’t in the same class.

Tags: Drama, Romance

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Mail: Re: The Notebook

My husband and I are avid fans of your excellent site. We’ve watched The Notebook again since reading your review. You raise many valid objections, starting with the superficiality of the relationship between the young Noah and Allie; this is indeed a very flawed film, and the negative moral/spiritual value score of minus-2 is sadly deserved. The most troublesome line is, “She agreed with all her heart but couldn’t understand why, at the moment she said yes, Noah’s face came to mind.” Well, because she didn’t agree with her whole heart! Purity of heart, Kierkegaard tells us, is to will one thing; most characters in this film don’t know that, and the one that does goes ”a little mad” with his obsession.

However, your post currently has essential factual and interpretative omissions which obscure some of film’s better qualities. I’m starting from the basic premise that this film is a “chick flick.” It’s marketed to young women, so we need to see it from the perspective of the intended audience.

Indeed, Allie is violent, and she and Noah interact with immaturity and recklessness. Still, there are factors contributing to the physicality in their relationship beyond lust or even distorted ”love.” At 17, Noah and Allie don’t have the relationship skills to deal honestly with their class differences without fighting — she doesn’t even tell Noah she’s been accepted to Sarah Lawrence College before her mother’s intervention. They dream of their future together and they attempt to have sex rather than to deal with their imminent separation and how to handle it.

The parents, though, bear much responsibility as well. The Hamiltons see their daughter dressing immodestly and behaving provocatively, but they practically encourage what they hope will just be a “summer romance.” While Noah and Allie don’t face it till they are breaking up, they both know the Hamiltons wouldn’t support their marrying. The young couple doesn’t have a realistic means of achieving its natural goal, and Noah and Allie settle for unchastity instead. In contrast, Lon and Allie later kiss, get engaged, and set a wedding date. Lon and Allie have opportunity and motive, but they don’t have sex, and a large factor is her family’s support. There’s no perceived need for settling. So yes, the drama does side with Noah and Allie, but it also offers an unspoken caution. In the vocabulary of Catholic parenting, it is wrong to neglect a child in his or her formation, just as it is wrong to force a child in his or her vocation.

Did Allie and Noah marry? Hands down, yes, and this fact is clear to a young woman viewer. We may even have photographic evidence of that in Duke’s album. There’s a picture of Duke/Noah and Allie both holding up three fingers and him pointing at her pregnant stomach — another child is to be welcomed into the family. To the far left is a picture of Noah in a tie and Allie in a white dress, sitting at a table. They may be signing their wedding registry, though I’m not positive about that.

There are about a dozen scenes throughout the film where we see Duke/Noah wearing his wedding ring — and one of the earliest is a gratuitous close-up of him adjusting his glasses with his left hand, so that almost no young woman, at least, will be left with any doubts about his marital status!

Likewise, early in the family scene, we see Allie’s wedding ring for the first time, but the astute young woman viewer notices that Allie is wearing just a plain band, not the engagement ring from Lon. Perhaps she simply isn’t wearing such an ornate ring in the nursing home? No. In between the two photos I described above is a picture of Duke/Noah and Allie where she has a different fancy ring on her ring finger — perhaps an engagement, evening, or anniversary ring, but something we don’t see elsewhere. It’s not the engagement ring from Lon. In total, there are about half a dozen scenes late in the film where we see Allie’s wedding band. The shift comes once Allie has been hugged by the boy later identified as “little Noah” (Noah Jr. in the credits), and she decides to go rest; once Allie is out of earshot, the kids acknowledge her as their mother.

You are quite right that “the story of the aged Noah reading to addled Allie — is far more evocative and interesting than the actual story in The Notebook.” Just as it behooves us to raise concern about the unchastity in the film and the tenuousness of the relationship that somehow lasts a lifetime, we also need to credit the significance of the older couple’s story in this day of infidelity, divorce, and euthanasia. Duke/Noah and Allie did get married, and to each other, and they stayed together despite an all-too-common tragedy. “I’m not leaving her. This is my home now. Your mother is my home.”

Steven, it wasn’t until we were nearly engaged that my husband started to learn from me how I could tell a man’s marital status from 30 feet away. My single friends and I had no time to waste on other women’s husbands, and we learned to peer unobtrusively. Women, especially young women, are generally more detail oriented than men, so I understand why you overlooked this key point. Like I said, this is a “chick flick.” And given that chicks see the “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health” message of The Notebook clearly packaged within the context of marriage, I hope you’ll raise the positive moral/spiritual value score of this film to a plus-2.

I accept your assessment as regards Noah and Allie’s wedding. I wasn’t looking for the wedding ring in part because it didn’t occur to me until after the screening was over to wonder whether they were married, and partly, no doubt, because I never had reason to assess a man’s marital status from 30 feet away, or even from five feet.

Your analysis of the good and the bad of Noah and Allie’s relationship seems to me both thoughtful and incisive — more so, I think, than the story itself. If all viewers brought this kind of moral perspective to movies, the need for critics like me to try to illuminate the moral dimensions of films would be greatly reduced. In particular, if all young women watching The Notebook brought the astuteness (not to mention the Kierkegaardian wisdom) of your remarks, my review would be superfluous.

At this point I couldn’t reconsider my ratings for The Notebook without revisiting the film itself — and that’s not very likely. However, ratings are much less important than commentary, and I’m happy to let your own comments (edited a bit for length) stand as a counterpoint to my review. Cheers.

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