Movie Review: The Vow
By Matthew Huntley
February 20, 2012
In more ways than not, The Vow is a pleasing, well-made romance, buoyed by likable (and credible) characters, a few unexpected narrative developments and a fine balance of humor and melodrama. One thing it doesn’t do is go overboard with its schmaltziness, which comes as a surprise since it’s blatantly being marketed as a cross between two of the more schmaltzy movies of recent memory: The Notebook and Dear John, and indeed it stars the female and male lead of those two pictures (I’m sure this was no accident when the movie was cast). But I’m not here to judge the ad campaign. As a love story, The Vow earns its sentimentality instead of being unfairly manipulative, and for this genre, that's a quality that goes a long way.
The movie has sort of a classic theme to it and even contains a running narration with dialogue like, “Life's all about moments of impact,” etc., but we forgive it for such clichés because we go into it expecting them and because the characters genuinely seem to be in love, and when you're in love, you tend to spew out and believe such words.
Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum play Paige and Leo, who, at the beginning of the movie, are the only ones seen exiting a downtown Chicago theater. Snow has just fallen, it's quiet and romance is in the air. While driving, Leo starts singing along to Meatloaf's "I Would Do Anything for Love" and Paige gets the kinky idea of making love at the next stop sign. Then a moment of impact happens, literally, as a plow rear ends them and sends Paige crashing through the windshield and into a coma.
Weeks later, she wakes up but has no memory of the past four years with Leo or the sacred vow she gave and received on their wedding day. In her mind, she's still a law student living up to her parents’ (Jessica Lange and Sam Neill) lofty expectations; she’s just broken up with her fiancé Jeremy (Scott Speedman); and she hasn’t yet developed the quirks that define her current personality. For instance, she can’t believe she’s a sculptor and a vegetarian, and she’s amazed to learn “the senator?” Barack Obama is now the President of the United States, and that she voted for him.
Leo is hoping it's just a matter of time before something clicks and Paige’s memory comes back, but it becomes clear it's not going to be that easy, and so he must endure the pain of being a stranger to his own wife. His plan is to get her to fall in love with him again, which is no easy task, but nobody ever said falling in loving (or being in love) was easy. He’s willing to start from the beginning, right down to asking Paige out on a first date.
Given everything we know about the romance genre, we can anticipate a lot of the movie’s scenes ahead of time. We know there will be outbursts of pain and crying; we know there will be tender moments of smiles and happiness; we know there will be conflicts between Leo and Paige's uptight, snobbish parents, whom Paige hasn't spoken to in years (for reasons I won’t reveal); and we suspect there will be a rekindling of sorts between Paige and Jeremy.
But in spite of these, there's still a lot of pleasure to take away from The Vow, mostly because the actors make the characters sweet, honest and down-to-earth. Rachel McAdams is an actress with a gift for making any material seem believable and she encourages us to take this would-be maudlin story seriously, infusing it with a depth greater than we might have thought possible. She has an inherent conviction and class to her and the camera, and we, love her for it. I can't speak as highly about Channing Tatum, who is usually so wooden on-screen that it's hard to believe he has any personality, but here I believed him as Leo and that he really loved Paige. He’s convincing and sympathetic as a man struggling to make ends meet when the most important person in his life no longer shares the same sentiments toward him.
It’s a good thing McAdams and Tatum are so good here, because the movie really does belong to them. They share at least four lovely, original scenes together, some of which feel improvised, which is probably why they also feel natural. It would have been nice if the movie gave as much life to the Jessica Lange and Sam Neill characters, who are unfortunately relegated to playing stuck-up, rich-people archetypes. At the end, the movie suggests there's more to their characters, and Lange gives a rational, strong speech, but by then it's too late.
Ultimately, The Vow operates as a Hollywood date movie, and while it works on those terms, I believe it could have been a greater, more impactful film had it divorced itself from that identifier and concentrated on what it might actually be like to be a couple facing Paige and Leo’s situation. As it is, the characters live in a romantic movie world, where everything seems planned out according to a screenplay, but what if it placed them in a world that was more real? Where all the inevitable “movie” things that happen didn't and we got to see them live and behave in ways that were more brutal and truthful? The movie is inspired by true events, I know, but it chooses to remain “inspired by” instead of “feeling” like a true story. I suppose we're not always looking for that type of raw, heartrending drama around Valentine’s Day, but it’s that kind that tends to live longer in our hearts and minds.