Friday, February 10, 2012

Strictly Genteel: Michael Sucsy's The Vow

When you fall in love, it can strike out of the blue, in serendipitous ways, totally out of your control. Michael Sucsy's The Vow, on the other hand, is so predictable and controlled that you can set your watch to it. The picture is also based on a true story, but usually when a movie has to remind you of such things it offers the opposite. Now I've seen a lot worse romantic dramas, including popular ones that are especially disingenuous and effective in wooing audiences (Sleepless in Seattle immediately springs to mind), but The Vow isn't one of those. It wants to wear its heart on its sleeve, but it falls victim to its lack of conviction even in its own formula plot.

The story follows a happily married couple, Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum), artist bohemians out of Chicago, whose lives are shattered one night when a car accident seriously injures Paige. After coming out of her coma, she wakes up with severe memory loss without remembering that she is married to Leo. Since we quickly discover that Paige originally came from a wealthy family that she abandoned for reasons explained later in the picture, we know that the film is going to be a battle of wills between the sensitive artist husband she's forgotten and the rich rotters who want her back. Guess who wins?

Director Micheal Sucsy pulls away from laying the sentiment and melodrama on too heavy, but his noble decision also lays bare the creaky mechanics of the plot. For instance, when Paige's parents (played by Jessica Lange and Sam Neill as if they were trapped in hair-shirts) want proof that Leo and Paige are actually married, the best thing he can come up with is a voice mail message. Since we are living in 2012, couldn't Leo have also provided a Facebook page, maybe some Tweets or texts between them, or even some e-mails dating back to the beginning of their courtship? We're also led to believe that once he wins the first battle in bringing her home, so she can gradually discover her memory of their life together, he springs on her a coming home surprise party that features all the people that she has no memory of knowing. It totally overwhelms her. (For all of Leo's sensitivities, he is something of a genial lug.)

Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum
Sucsy does show a relaxed hand with the actors, something he demonstrated in Grey Gardens (2010) with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange (which David Churchill wrote about in an earlier post), but the casting here plays havoc with the plot. While Rachel McAdams demonstrates more of the supple sweetness that made her a star in The Notebook, Wedding Crashers and Red Eye, she can't get a decent rhythm going with Channing Tatum. Tatum might be all heart as Leo, the idealized boyfriend and husband, but he can't give him a soul. His earnest handsomeness, which suggests Josh Hartnett without a libido, comes across as bland and too self-effacing. You spend most of the movie wondering why these two people are together. You don't ache and feel for Leo either when she can't remember him.

Scott Speedman
On the other hand, when you create a romantic rival for Leo and cast Scott Speedman in the role, you're really stacking the deck against poor Tatum. Speedman has such charisma and quick-witted vitality that he overturns the plot of the movie. Since he's cast as the Yuppie corporate villain with pomade hair and Perrier-breath, who Paige broke from when she turned away from her family, we're supposed to see him as the wolf in the hen house. But the wolf sets off such sparks between himself and McAdams that it's the only time in the picture when we feel any kind of romantic heat.

On the whole, trying to make good romantic pictures these days has become more and more difficult. Part of why the great love stories and comedies of the Thirties and Forties worked so well was not just that many came from terrific Broadway plays and their great writers and stars, it was also because love and sex was still considered a mystery. Erotic tension was created out of innuendo and suggestion. Now that movies deal with eroticism using more explicitness, with the characters' neurosis clearly defined, the mystery is out of the bottle. Romantic writers and directors end up delving further into raunch, as Judd Apatow has done, or (like The Vow) they simply try to resurrect old romantic virtues dressed up in contemporary clothes. Either way, we never get to the fundamental reasons of why two people meet and are never the same afterward.

Despite offering the audience a huge tug of the heart just in time for Valentine's Day, The Vow has no heart to give. It's strictly genteel.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier began a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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