The germs of a few good ideas reside within the bowels of “The Vow,” but the movie is too preoccupied with pushing chick-flick buttons to cultivate them. Someone figured — and perhaps not without reason — that you don’t need thoughtful, resonant themes when you have Channing Tatum’s torso.
Based on a true story, “The Vow” does everything it can to seem fake and Hollywood-ized, the better to please the demographic in search of a simple, weepy romantic Valentine’s Day story. The situation is this: Leo (Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) have been together four years and are deliriously in love when a car accident leaves Paige with amnesia. Not full-on amnesia, though: she remembers everything up until a few years ago. Which is to say she remembers everything except her soulmate and husband. This is a sad and frustrating situation for Leo, and a reminder of how easy it is to forget Channing Tatum.
Paige’s snooty upper-crust parents (played by Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), from whom she was estranged, see this as an opportunity to start over again, to bring her “home” and pretend she never met Leo. Paige doesn’t remember why she stopped speaking to her parents, and Leo is too much of a gentleman to tell her. Her parents act selfishly, in other words, while Leo is always well-meaning and sensitive, if occasionally a bit dumb. (For some reason he thinks the best thing for someone who doesn’t remember the last four years of her life is to overwhelm her with a surprise party full of friends she’ll feel bad for not recognizing.) Paige knows she is supposed to be in love with Leo, but she doesn’t feel it. He has to woo her all over again.
You can see the elements falling into place. A compassionate husband (who’s also super hot, by the way, and completely loyal) will do everything in his power to help his beloved wife regain her memory, and he’ll need to do a lot of romantic things to make it work. He will sacrifice his own career and livelihood in order to focus constantly on her needs, her feelings, her happiness. He’ll even stand up to her mean parents if he has to! Everything is carefully calculated to make the young female audience say, “Awwww!”
The screenplay — credited to Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (the duo behind “Valentine’s Day” and “He’s Just Not That Into You”) and Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights”) — lays it on pretty thick. When Leo goes with Paige to visit her hometown and college friends, she not only remembers every detail but mentions every detail. “Oh, the neighbors got a new mailbox! How cute!” (That’s actually one of her lines, more or less.) She remembers her douchey ex-fiance, Jeremy (Scott Speedman), and can’t remember why she dumped him. She doesn’t mean to rub it in that she remembers everything except Leo, but that’s the effect. Poor Leo! Awwww!
One of the aforementioned germs of a good idea is the exploration of how easy it is to return to our old selves, to disregard the progress we’ve made. Paige clearly improved herself these last few years, not just in meeting Leo but in leaving law school to pursue her real passions and ditching her toxic family. Yet now the easiest path would be for her to ignore all that (because she’s forgotten it) and revert to the person she used to be. Circumstances have made such regression convenient. Why shouldn’t she stick with what she remembers and is comfortable with?
Another potentially interesting idea is the concept that “love” is not biological. Without her memories of Leo, Paige doesn’t love him. What are the implications there? Is Leo obligated to help her regain her memory — i.e., to help her love him again? Would that really be “helping” her?
We get hints of this kind of thematic depth here and there, but obviously it’s not even close to being one of the film’s top priorities. Directed with unremarkable competence by Michael Sucsy (who made “Grey Gardens” for HBO a few years ago), “The Vow” strives hard to be a by-the-numbers romantic drama, no thoughtfulness allowed. It gets by on the combined likability of McAdams and Tatum, and on a handful of gently sweet moments. I suspect it won’t take a car crash to make you forget you ever saw it, though.
C (1 hr., 44 min.; )