If there is one film from the last decade maligned only for its genre and audience, and nothing else, it is The Notebook. Heralded by many as akin to the chick flick to end all chick flicks, it stands as a long running joke for a fill-in-the-blank movie that a woman might force a man to stay home to watch against his will. Such is its reputation that one of our editors even dared to ask whether it was even a good movie. I contend that not only is The Notebook a good film, it is the single greatest work of romantic fiction of the last decade. No film so captured the imagination of lovers, nor milked as many tears, as the Nicholas Sparks adaptation of his best-selling novel of the same name.
At its heart, what allows the film to rise to the top is the very core of its idea. Explaining it aloud is enough to get someone to begin tearing up. Humanity's greatest fear isn't death; it is the death of the self -- the idea that what makes us uniquely us dies, leaving us to wander around, a lifeless husk of our former selves. Scarier to some is the idea that this might happen instead to the love of our life. The Notebook is the story of a man who so deeply loves his wife that, despite her suffering from Alzheimer's, he sits with her every day, reading to her the story of how they met and fell in love, hoping that he might catch a glimpse -- if only for a few minutes -- of the woman he fell in love with. And he does so, diligently, day in and day out, despite the rarity and brevity of those instants. It is a testament of love so primal and profound it's a wonder that it hadn't been done before. It is enough to break your heart just thinking about it.
As it so happens, the story he reads her also happens to be a deeply romantic, sweeping love story. It begins with the flirtation of youth and the passion of young love, then proceeds through heartbreak, longing, dedication, rediscovery and ultimately the passionate reuniting of two lovers destined to be together. It begins like a Taylor Swift song and ends like the best of romances. The story within a story that is our protagonists' tale is in and of itself riveting and touching, but framed within the tale of such a sad, tragic ending, it becomes even more so. It has both a happily ever after and a heartbreaking death, in between which rests the bitter reality of life. It says both that there is no real happily ever after and that love exists that is so powerful that it might just be close enough. The love between Allie and Noah (Duke) is the kind of love we all pine for, and that we all want to believe we have. But modern American society discourages men from admitting they feel this way, despite the fact that it is what every woman wants to hear.
A woman wants to know that a man would cross oceans of time just to see her -- and yet most men these days refuse to say aloud that they would do such a thing; even if many, if not most of them, would. Most of the married men I know -- myself included -- wish they were exactly like Duke, and hope that, were they in that very situation, they would act in exactly the same manner. But it's not something we say aloud. And thus the film threatens the core of American male machismo. It's not cool to say you love one woman so much that you'd dedicate yourself to reading to her when she's all but gone; but enough of us feel this way that the film has established itself as a modern classic. It makes us weep before we force our wives to promise to never, ever mention that they saw us cry. If you are able to sit through it with nary a sniffle, check your pulse because you might be dead already.
On top of all this, it also happens to be a very well directed, beautifully shot film starring two of their generation's finest actors: Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. It is a nearly flawless, mainstream film that says more about the human condition than most gritty, realistic, true-to-life tales ever manage. Is it good? No. It's great. A true modern classic, The Notebook is easily the most important and affecting romantic film of its day.