I'll relate what may be the most telling thing about The Vow, the new based-on-a-true-story romance from director Michael Sucsy starring Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams as a young married couple torn apart when a head injury gives her amnesia that wipes out their entire relationship from her mind. When a group of film-writer friends and I were talking about it prior to screening, we were all in some part unshakably convinced The Vow was a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. It isn't, but it might as well be—it's like a can of fake Spam, the lower-rent version of something already from the bargain basement. That is, if that can of fake Spam was going to make millions and millions of dollars this weekend.
To be fair, The Vow does follow the Sparks factory mandate to a T (which in this case stands for "trauma"). A young and attractive couple are in love. That love is tested by medical, neurological or geopolitical disaster. Love then wins the day by wheezing through a series of intense but ultimately predictable crises, much like a portly boxer wheezing through a fixed fight until his opponent throws it in the correct round. Love, it is said, conquers all. But The Vow proves that love can't conquer bad writing.
Sparks-adaptation veterans Rachel McAdams (of The Notebook) and Channing Tatum (Dear John) are cast as our couple, a sculptor and recording engineer—the real couple who inspired the story worked in sporting goods and coaching baseball, but those boring, real jobs wouldn't allow us to see McAdams weep over her sculptures and Tatum sadly strum his guitar. McAdams and Tatum essentially do for The Vow what McAdams and Ryan Gosling did for The Notebook: Fill grade-F material with grade-A charisma and charm, compromising to make what is, at best, a grade-C romantic drama. If you do wind up in The Vow, you can pass the time by wondering how much worse things could have been if it starred, say, Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry.
Director Michael Sucsy, a TV veteran, directs the film with all the flair and elegance of a CBS crime-fighting procedural: montages, time-lapse moments, perfectly-lit moments of inner torment, and individual tears rolling over superbly-shaped cheekbones. It doesn't mean much, though—you could make a drinking game out of The Vow, taking a shot every time Tatum looks sad-but-determined and McAdams looks hopeful-but-confused and the good news is that you'd be dead of alcohol poisoning halfway through and wouldn't have to endure the film's easily-figured-out secret twist and the final act that does not so much seek to warm your heart as shove it into the cliché-ridden entrails of some rank, cut-open tauntaun to drink the heat of a dying, stinking, clumsy beast.
There's passable performances from the other actors in predictable parts: Scott Speedman as the smug ex-fiancée McAdams last remembers being engaged to, Sam Neill and Jessica Lange as the chilly Wasp-y parents she abandoned five years ago for reasons she can't recall, now seizing the chance to make amends on their own terms. But with his natural charisma buried under the leaden weight of boilerplate writing, Tatum is reduced to bellowing things like "I'm trying here!" while McAdams is reduced to shrieking "I don't know who I am!"
Yet, there is one amazing scene between Tatum and McAdams in The Vow. They're recreating one of their favorite inside indulgences—which he remembers and she does not—by splitting a box of chocolates at their fave café (which is called, I kid you not, "Café Mnemonic"). She smiles at something he says and he cracks up because she's spit a fragment of chocolate into her hair. As they collapse into laughter, he plucks it from her tresses, both of them utterly won over by her lack of cool. It's a nice scene. You can also tell it wasn't in the script, which is more interested in making you reach for a hanky than it is in making itself reach for something other than mediocrity. The Vow promises romance and charm and poetry, but except for McAdams and Tatum occasionally jolting the movie into life, it fails to keep its word.
Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams, Sam Neill, Jessica Lange, Scott Speedman
Director: Michael Suscy
Screenwriters: Marc Silverstein, Stuart Sender, Abby Kohn, Jason Katims and Michael Suscy
Producers: Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Susan Cooper, J. Miles Dale, Jonathan Glickman, Austin Hearst, Cassidy Lange, Paul Taublieb
Rating: Rated PG-13 for an accident scene, sexual content, partial nudity and some language.
Running time: 104 Mins.
Release date: Feb. 10, 2012