The Notebook

I have never read any books by Nicholas Sparks, but I have to believe they are not very good. “The Notebook” is the third one to be adapted for film, after “A Walk to Remember” and “Message in a Bottle,” and the third one to be mediocre and treacly.

It is set in rural South Carolina in the 1940s. The wealthy Hamilton family of Charleston has a summer home in this tiny town, and local lumber worker Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) immediately takes note of Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams), a beautiful 17-year-old with an infectious laugh. He convinces her to go on a date with him — threatens to throw himself off the Ferris wheel if she doesn’t, actually — and soon teen love is in full bloom.

Allie’s parents, including her absurdly mustached father (David Thornton) and her charm-and-good-graces mother (Joan Allen), do not approve of Noah, of course, since he is a common laborer with no money. But it is just a summer fling, and Allie is going to college in New York in the fall.

Due to tragic misunderstandings and both parties’ fiery temperaments, Allie and Noah split on bad terms, and when he writes letters to her thereafter, her mother hides them from her. Noah goes off to World War II, and Allie meets a soldier whose family has money, Lon Hammond (James Marsden), whom Mom and Dad accept with open arms.

All of this is framed by a story set in the present, where an elderly man (James Garner) visits a woman (Gena Rowlands) at a nursing home every day and reads a story to her. It is apparently a device to help refresh her memory; we gather she has Alzheimer’s or something. It’s obvious that she is Allie.

The only question, if there is any question, is which man James Garner is: Noah or Lon. I don’t think there’s much suspense on that issue, but the movie, directed by Nick Cassavetes (son of Gena Rowlands and her late husband, the director John Cassavetes), withholds information about the elderly couple long enough to convince me they were hoping to surprise us.

The cast, which also includes Sam Shepard as Noah’s craggy, down-to-earth father, is stellar, and the whole thing almost works. Gosling and McAdams make a nice couple, and Garner and Rowlands are both, even at this stage in their careers, as sharp as ever. Some of their moments together are legitimately touching.

But the movie is too simple-minded. When it doesn’t know what to do with a character anymore, it has the character die. It allows its plot to progress almost entirely without opposition. The story of young love is charming, but it needs a real conflict, and “my parents don’t approve of you and my mom hid your letters” doesn’t count. Angst has been substituted for drama, and while it’s a sweet movie, it’s also drearily uninspired. I suspect the couples who would enjoy it thoroughly would equally enjoy sitting at home and gazing into each other’s eyes for two hours.

C+ (2 hrs., 1 min.; PG-13, some mild profanity, a little sexuality, brief partial nudity.)