Sparks Don't Fly in 'The Vow'
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
A Valentine Day's gift swaddled in sanitized Saran wrap, "The Vow" is a pretty package of sweets, sealed off from the corrupting air of reality. It will encourage susceptible audiences -- women, to be precise -- to believe that they've been party to Big Emotions, the kind that leave a pleasant if transient glow. Think of "The Vow" as vanilla Valium, a feel-good cure for a "Blue Valentine"'s hard truths about everlasting love.
Inspired by a true story, this weepie stars hunky Channing Tatum ("Dear John") and perky Rachel McAdams ("The Notebook"), both veterans of the lucrative Nicholas Sparks genre of lovers cruelly separated by fate and whatnot. Here, in a non-Sparksian script, brain damage and amnesia do the trick.
One snowy night, at the exact moment Paige (McAdams) coyly suggests they make a baby, a huge truck smashes into the back of the couple's car, propelling Leo's wife through the windshield. When she wakes, Paige has no idea who Leo (Tatum) is and can't remember the last five years of her life.
So the hip bohemian artist who passionately sculpted massive female forms and happily hung out with Leo's "family" of funky friends suddenly goes cartoonishly straight. As in straightening and streaking her long, curly hair. (Her Jekyll-Hyde metamorphosis is horribly underscored by her onetime delight with Leo's proposal spelled out in blueberries on waffles and her post-concussion taste for blueberry mojitos. I kid you not.)
Paige heads for home, into the welcoming arms of Mom (Jessica Lange) and Dad (Sam Neill), wealthy WASPs from whom she's been estranged for years. Soon the girl's making goo-goo eyes at her former fiancé (Scott Speedman, truly slimy) and re-enrolling in law school. Even though Leo's artist-hippie has morphed into a stereotypical Young Republican, her dreamboat husband's determined to make her fall back in love with him.
We know these two are meant for each other because we've been sold by a slick movie trailer ... excuse me, a bouquet of romantic flashbacks: Paige and Leo meet so-cute at the DMV; Leo gives Paige a gift of cold remedies adorned with adorable Post-its; Leo and Paige exchange endearingly personalized wedding vows in a museum, surrounded by beaming bohos; Leo and Paige make (implied, chastely cut-away-from) love. It's like sinking into a warm bath surrounded by sweet-smelling candles.
Through voice-over, Leo tries to give these snapshots some emotional weight, maundering on monotonously about how memories -- "moments of impact" -- add up to who we are. (The filmmakers courageously resisted backing these drippy monologues with Dean Martin crooning "Memories Are Made of This.") This treacle goes down so easy, the dose is repeated, as Leo attempts to jump-start Paige's memories by reprising their happy times.
First-time feature helmer Michael Sucsy garnered critical praise for TV's "Grey Gardens," but if "The Vow" was visualized by someone who possessed a distinctive way of looking at the world or shaping performances, it certainly doesn't show. Directing the camera to waft around Tatum, pooled in warm golden light, while he recalls -- sans affect, of course -- the first time his wife told him she loved him verges on unintentional comedy, though it may jerk tears in some circles. And when, pretty much out of the blue, Lange lets loose with a diva's emotional blast of grown-up grief and forgiveness, she just about blows McAdams -- and the movie -- away.
But most of "The Vow" consists of McAdams staring at Tatum and vice versa. This is not a productive trope. An attractive cipher, McAdams projects wide-eyed appeal punched up by thin facsimiles of emotion. Her co-star looks a little lobotomized -- his trademark from "Step Up" to "The Eagle" -- despite his manly deployment of teary eyes and soulful glances.
Truth be told, the dude who started out as a stripper and model always looks as though he's striking the pose that suits the scene. Tatum may be remarkably lumpen -- he's got no sense of rhythm at all -- but there's a kind of sweet cunning behind the come-hither hunkery, as though he's calculating exactly what his physicality might buy him.
Have to wonder how Steven Soderbergh will work that limited talent in "Magic Mike," the upcoming comedy in which Tatum stars as -- what else? -- a stripper. Maybe this oddly leaden performer will loosen up by returning to his roots, but he fails to bring any convincing magic to "The Vow."
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.