When a movie calls itself "The Vow," you know it takes its love and its relationships seriously. And that's certainly the case with the new romantically and medically challenged weepie starring Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum.
Despite the sweet story -- lovely couple, car wreck, brain injury, she forgets him, he loves her anyway -- and the beautiful scenery -- cool converted warehouse spaces, snowy Chicago streets, Lake Michigan in the moonlight, and of course Tatum and McAdams -- this is a movie that leaves you wanting more. To care more, to cry more, to love more.
Inspired by a true story, it begins with a date night at the movies for young marrieds Paige (McAdams) and Leo (Tatum). Then an accident on the way home, capped by a trip to the emergency room that feels like a pale version of "Grey's Anatomy," changes everything. When Paige wakes up from a medically induced coma, her memory has been wiped clean, and thus starts Leo's bid to help her remember their life and their love, and when she doesn't, he tries to get her to fall for him again.
Because this is very much a before-and-after affair, the film expends a lot of effort shifting between the eras, filling in the blanks for us as well as Paige in ways that are sometimes artful and sometime so forced it's easy to relate to Paige's increasing impatience. Leo never wavers from long-suffering heroic hunk, with his voice-over memories used to stitch everything together and patch over the rough spots in the plot as well.
Lange is welcome
Director Michael Sucsy, who brought out all the crazy cobwebs of TV's "Grey Gardens" in such an elegant way, hasn't got it all wrong. He's made a good choice in bringing along one of its leads, Jessica Lange. She plays Paige's mother and gives the film one of the few moments that feels absolutely real.
To help keep things straight, there is a distinct visual line drawn between the two times in Paige's life. Far more appealing is the urban-artiste world that Leo and Paige created as a couple -- she's a sculptor, he owns a recording studio -- with all of their spaces retro-riffic. In contrast, the suburban affluence of mom (Lange) and dad (Sam Neill, much better in "Alcatraz" at the moment than this) looks pristine, well put together and exceedingly bland.
Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers and the production design team headed by Kalina Ivanov outdo themselves to make things visually enticing.
The problems start with a very lopsided script that keeps the synapse-crossed lovers too unbalanced too much of the time. With the screenplay credit split four ways to include the director, Jason Katims, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, you feel their separate sensibilities fighting for control.
It all might have been better left in Katims' hands. Having written some of the most believably human relationship dramas on TV, including "My So-Called Life," "Friday Night Lights" and the wonderful complications of the current "Parenthood," he might have been able to pull this off.
Kohn and Silverstein, on the other hand, have teamed for a string of unsatisfying lite romantic comedies, including "He's Just Not That Into You" and last year's "Valentine's Day" mush.
"The Vow" definitely favors Leo, with Tatum given much more to work with. It's nice to see the actor dig deeper than he did in 2010's "Dear John," which didn't ask much more of his soldier-on-leave than he look good in board shorts.
He can emote
Not that the filmmakers here don't make the most of his bod (as did "Saturday Night Live" last week, playing the "I started out as a male stripper" card heavily). But the filmmakers also let him try out actual emotions, which he handles in ways that suggest he could do even more.
McAdams is left to do what she can with Paige's elusive memory, which calls for a lot of smiles and blank stares, though she echoes enough of the sweetness of "The Notebook" to probably satisfy those fans. But it feels like such wasted spaciness.
She is such an appealing actress that it's hard not to wish someone could make better use of the kind of smart, vulnerable edge she brought to "The Family Stone" or her wits-matching sass opposite Robert Downey Jr. in "Sherlock Holmes."
Sadly, Paige's memory isn't the only thing gone missing in "The Vow." There are close-up kisses to be sure, a nice shot of naked bodies in tangled sheets, a nearly naked dip in the lake, a wedding video filled with lots of hints at bliss, but no heart-racing, pulse-pounding passion to speak of.
There is a flicker in one of the after-the-wreck moments with Paige and Leo working their way through a box of chocolates, trying to recapture the emotions of their first date.
If only the filmmakers had found a way to fan that flame.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for an accident scene, sexual content, partial nudity and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release