Saturday, February 11, 2012

Don't You Remember You Told Me You Loved Me: THE VOW

In most Hollywood romances, the ending is obvious: the two biggest stars in the film are going to fall in love. That’s the very nature of the genre. What makes The Vow a somewhat interesting genre exercise is how it starts with the stars in love and takes it all away from them. At the beginning of the film, we meet the central couple already married. They’re just driving away from a movie theater (Chicago’s Music Box Theater, no less) on a frosty night when they’re rear-ended by a truck that just can’t stop fast enough in the freshly fallen snow. This is when we get the Meet Cute, in flashback, followed by a getting-to-know-you montage that starts with their first date, follows them through many more, and then ends in their marriage.

Back in the present, the wife wakes up from her coma without her memories of the last five years. She looks uncomprehendingly at her anxious husband. She thinks he’s her doctor. She looks down at her ring finger and is shocked. Who is this man? The structure of these opening scenes flips the script. We already know the two of them are in love, are married. The central question is whether or not she’ll remember those feelings. The husband’s determined to re-woo his wife, but she just wants to figure out what to do in this life she doesn’t remember creating for herself.

Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams play the husband and wife and they relate to each other pre- and post-accident in convincing ways. They’re a believable couple, intimate and comfortable. Later, he can’t help but take her memory loss a little personally. McAdams plays it subtly differently after the accident, posture a little straighter, voice a little looser. She feels like a woman who has fallen back in time while everyone else moved forward. She sees the pain on her husband’s face but she can’t recognize him as her husband.

What she does see, what’s comfortable to her, is her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), her neighborhood, her old friends, her old life, even her old boyfriend (Scott Speedman). We learn that she was in law school and decided she wanted to change course. She had a falling out with her parents and moved into the city where she studied to become an artist. She hasn’t seen her parents in years. Her husband never met them. Now, they’re all she knows. She woke up a law student again, surprised not only by her marriage but by her career as well.

Director Michael Sucsy presents all of this with a kind of glossy Hallmark-card heartbreak that works pretty well. There’s a surprisingly effective core of convincing emotion here. McAdams delivers strong work and I must admit that Tatum’s limited range is starting to charm me from time to time. In fact, if the film had honed in on its lead performances and really felt them instead of just presenting them, it would really have been something. As it is, I wish someone could have gotten his or her hands on the script by Abby Kohn (of Valentine’s Day) and Jason Katims (of Friday Night Lights) and just tightened it up, sharpened the focus, and cleaned away all the clutter.

The supporting cast members aren’t allowed to pop out in any notable way and there are easily a half-dozen characters standing around. Neill and Lange do good work with thin roles as the stuffy, rich parents who swoop in and try to use the amnesia to help mend their relationship with their not-exactly-starving-artist daughter. (She forgot whatever it was that came between them, so why not? Right?) But the central husband and wife each have a gaggle of friends and colleagues that float around as convenient scene partners to bounce emotions and plot points off of without ever coming into clear focus as actual characters. There’s little sense of how these people actually relate with each other, let alone with the plot and emotions of the film. Consequentially, the film grows aimless and overlong, wobbling through a concept that once seemed so promising. By the end, I felt my patience running thin.

At one point, Lange’s character tells her daughter that she chooses to forgive, happy for all the things done right instead of focusing on the things done wrong. That’s how I’d like to approach this film. I appreciate all involved for sneaking something slightly raw (I said slightly) and more complicated (again, slightly) than you’d expect from a slick Hollywood romance. But as I sat there, I kept imagining a movie that really gave in to the kind of intricate emotional territory the concept suggests, a slick psychological drama of a romance that really dug into the couple’s relationship instead of presenting it in moments of greeting-card uplift. I think the actors are ready to go there, but the material doesn’t let them. But that they even get part of the way there is something of some small interest.

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