The things that got us verklempt in the last week include the latest episode of “Downton Abbey” and the “Halftime in America” Chrysler ad with Clint Eastwood. Clearly, it doesn’t take much, but noticeably absent from that list is the would-be weepy “The Vow,” starring Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum. We even came prepared for tears, Boy Scout-style, with tissues in our pockets, but they’re still there, waiting to make a linty mess out of our laundry. The film isn’t as bad as what it looks like–the Chinatown knockoff equivalent of a Nicholas Sparks movie–but that doesn’t mean that those outside the target audience won’t find it a painful experience.
Tatum and McAdams star as Leo and Paige, an almost disgustingly happy, artsy married couple living in Chicago’s North Side neighborhood. How do we know they’re artsy? She wears tie-dye shirts and doesn’t straighten her hair, he smirks while donning a pork pie hat, and they live in a loft. A car accident puts Paige into a coma, and when she wakes up, she has no memory of her life with Leo. The most recent thing she can remember is being engaged to Jeremy (Scott Speedman) and her estranged parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) swoop in to try to take her away from Leo, a man they’ve never met.
But Leo is persistent in trying to woo his wife, embodying everything that women are told they want in Cosmopolitan: he’s sensitive (he plays the guitar!), he brings her flowers (not carnations!), and he looks good with his shirt (and pants!) off. However, Paige is confused and still can’t remember their adorable courtship, not even the requisite scene of Tatum’s Leo standing in the rain after bringing her a care package when she’s sick. She retreats to her parents’ home in a ritzy suburb filled with polos and douchebags (including ex-fiance Jeremy).
Inspired by a true story, “The Vow” is alternately grimace and giggle-inducing, thanks to a script from two disparate sources: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (“He’s Just Not That Into You” and “Valentine’s Day”) and Jason Katims (TV’s “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights”). There is some truly terrible dialogue here that feels like it’s straight out of a “Sweet Valley High” novel, and we’re eager to blame Kohn and Silverstein with their collective track record of crap. However, occasionally, there’s a sweetness and a believable silliness to the interactions between Leo and Paige, and we’ll credit cult favorite Katims for injecting a dose of authenticity into the affair. However, the best moment in the film is likely owed to the actors; it seems totally unscripted in a good way and genuine in a manner that the rest of “The Vow” rarely achieves.
It’s hard not to be charmed by Tatum. As Leo, he wavers in the film’s more dramatic moments (and we could really do without the voiceover), but he succeeds when he’s supposed to be flirty, awkward, or appealingly dumb. Even if Paige doesn’t fall in love with him immediately, from the sighs we heard in the theater, it’s clear that the core demo is smitten. This isn’t McAdam’s best performance and she’s even surprisingly unsympathetic at times, though that’s owed more to the script than the actress. She mainly deserves credit for her willingness to have awful hair. In flashbacks, she wears a wig that looks exactly like one you can buy at Party Town to complete your Mia Wallace ensemble for Halloween, and she spends the latter half of the film with bad blond highlights (because yuppies love highlights).
Neill and Lange are predictably capable as Paige’s domineering parents, but the rest of the supporting cast beyond Speedman is unremarkable. The largely unrecognizable, not particularly talented actors who play Paige and Leo’s friends seem like they were pulled from a cheaper film (or a producer’s family tree), making it appear as though the money was spent after paying for the salaries of Tatum, McAdams, Neill and Lange.
Director Michael Sucsy previously helmed the lauded TV movie “Grey Gardens,” and he tries to inject a bit of style into a genre that’s normally shot in a completely straightforward fashion. Unfortunately, that style largely includes using slow motion in dramatic moments, including seeing McAdams’s Paige crash through the car’s windshield during her traumatic accident. The other technical annoyance revolves around the film’s score from Michael Brook and Rachel Portman, which is predictable and bland. The soundtrack is better, featuring tracks from The National, Lykke Li, OK Go and more, but any goodwill is squandered by the use of the far-too-obvious (but otherwise lovely) “Pictures of You” by The Cure over the closing credits. In a film starring Tatum, we don’t know why we’d expect subtlety, but this obvious choice seems like it could have been made by a teenager just discovering the classic band for the first time.
Overall, “The Vow” isn’t a failure because it will appeal to women who adore these types of movies, particularly those who drag their significant others to it as a Valentine’s Day date/punishment for being forced to watch the Super Bowl. However, those who expect to love it as much as “The Notebook” are better off staying home and watching their DVDs with a box of tissues and waterproof mascara. [C]