Melodrama is a tricky thing. It’s generally intended to convey a state of heightened emotions without going entirely over the top as the romantically linked struggle to triumph against steep odds. Melodrama requires a delicate touch; in the hands of a Sirk or a Spielberg, it can be a thing of beauty, but more often than not, the material drifts toward soap opera and yet still turns a handsome profit. As such, The Vow is custom-made to be no exception to the rule.
After a swoon-worthy night at the movies, Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) take off onto the snowy streets of Chicago, only to be rear-ended by a truck. Paige falls into a coma and Leo dutifully waits by her side, but when she wakes up, she doesn’t remember her husband or their friends, nor can she recall why she dumped fiancé Jeremy (Scott Speedman) or what made her so estranged from her parents (an equally sneering Sam Neill and Jessica Lange).
Amid the early histrionics, we see them meet cute four years earlier; we see them bond over their respective artistic interests (she’s a sculptor, he’s into music); we see the young lovers get married in an art museum surrounded by their laughably bohemian buddies. (Seriously, did they fall out of a Gen-X rom-com and into this film instead?) But it’s all a wash for Leo, who has to win Paige back as she gravitates towards those she still recognizes and trusts. Many questions and apologies ensue, akin to a Nicholas Sparks movie somehow not based on a Nicholas Sparks novel or 50 First Dates stripped of its awful jokes, leaving only corny gestures and sporadically convincing heartache intact.
Taking its basis from the true-life story of New Mexico’s Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, who were forced to start from scratch after a similar accident had identical repercussions, it’s as if the veritable roundtable of (credited) writers – half of whom are responsible for the treacly likes of prior February lay-ups Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You – dared one another to take their pass at making this true-life struggle increasingly dramatic and, thus, more unbelievable: “So she’s forgotten him…” “…and she’s back to loving her ex-fiancé…” “…and her family’s also hiding a secret from her!” The plot points pile up like so much car debris.
In the true spirit of misshapen melodrama, the woes of the central characters stem from exaggerated circumstances rather than realistic situations. As for the stars, Tatum defies his wooden reputation here – earnest for a change, viably compassionate and determined throughout. Oddly enough, McAdams is conversely relegated to his angsty-and-slightly-lost expression, though strictly because the plot dictates that her mood swings and overall resistance to the familiar serve as a front-and-center hurdle. Ideally, the focus would have been from her disoriented perspective and not his mopey standpoint, spare us of his narration all about “moments of impact” in a film that has little genuine impact to call its own. (It doesn’t help matters that every last character trait that Leo cherishes about Paige seems to have come about strictly during her lost years, causing her to revert into a WASP-y drone with dreams of law school and old money living.)
The occasional touch of tenderness slips through when the couple isn’t bonding over chocolates with Gump-like enthusiasm at their favorite spot, Café Mnemonic (ugh). But for the most part, first-time feature director Michael Suscy sticks to the Hollywood routine of unlikely conflicts and maudlin displays of devotion, more than willing to comfort anyone with a fuzzy grasp on real-world romance that the pretty people will make it through somehow, with no scars too deep.