Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams), in many ways, have the ideal life. They are hopelessly in love, happily married, and living in an urban, pseudo-bohemian hipster paradise. She’s an artist, and he runs his own recording studio. One romantically snowy night, the two share a moment in a parked car…an ill-advised decision. A truck plows into them and sends Paige into a coma. When she awakes, she finds her anxiety-riddled husband sitting at her bedside. The trouble is that she can’t remember that they are married or even who he is at all. She is suffering from a severe form of retrograde amnesia in which she can only remember events up the point shortly before she moved to the big city and met Leo. Suddenly her parents, with whom she hadn’t spoken during the course of her relationship with Leo, show up, insisting to take her back home. Leo hopes against hope that his wife will regain her memory of him, their love, and their life together before it all disappears for good.
No critic should ever close his mind to any film simply on the principle that it resides outside of their particular tastes. However, in the interest of full disclosure, romance films (of both the r0m-com and rom-dram varieties) are far from my preferred genre. What tends to balance the scales of objectivity is that I recognize my bias and endeavor to therefore cut these films an added measure of slack as a result. All I really ask is that the film to at least earnestly attempt to connect with me emotionally without pandering to my tear ducts. For most of its run, Michael Sucsy‘s The Vow did exactly what I asked of it. It was surprisingly heartfelt and emotionally weighty…before it slowly remembered it was a Hollywood rom-dram and reverted to the woeful tropes there contained.
Essentially what The Vow does is to take Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and run it through the studio machine in order to unburden it of much of its complexity. However, it does find a kernel of undeniable sincerity in its stripped down, slightly rearranged form. Instead of a film about two people at the end of a cancerous relationship that started off well willingly removing the memory of said relationship from their consciousness (a la Eternal Sunshine), we get the arguably more tragic depiction of a blossoming, almost unnaturally strong relationship besieged by cruel fate. It doesn’t force you to digest the more complex questions about the nature of love and predestination, but it does present one very tragic story, based on actual events, that plays like a love-sick version of the tale of Job.
Tatum plays a man experiencing his own personal hell. He’s had the great fortune of finding a true love that completely defines and fulfills him only to have it ripped away from him. Every day he has to try to convince his own wife that she, at one time, loved him all the while existing with a woman who now sees him as a stranger and avoids his touch at every turn. He tries every trigger he can think of, recreating every previously endearing facet of their relationship, in the hopes that the haze will lift and she will be the woman he married again. He has to watch helplessly as she is emotionally manipulated by her parents who are using her amnesia as an opportunity to gloss over the incident that made her come to the city in the first place. And through all of it, he must reconcile his desperation and pain with the fact that this is not her fault and that he must be supportive.
My heart ached for this guy, and much of the credit for that emotional resonance is due to Tatum himself. I can’t say this guy has ever ranked among my favorite actors, or even among actors I particularly enjoy, but I was thoroughly impressed with him in The Vow. He occupies the role with such quiet agony and genuine passion. He manages to sell us on his everyday Joe persona, despite the numerous superfluous shots of his Ken doll abdomen, and yet he displays a disciplined actor’s understanding of goals and expectations, navigating the various levels of the role with great skill. He sits in every emotionally vital moment and fights for every inch of ground he gains with his amnesic beloved. It may just because I am also happily married, and the thought of my wife forgetting me entirely is too much for me to bear, but it crushed me to watch him clutch desperately to his feelings for her even as they ravaged him inside.
Where the movie started to lose me however, and where I feel much of its potential is squandered, is in McAdams’ character. I completely understand that someone suffering from a memory loss such as hers would be living in their own nightmarish situation, constantly confused and even frightened of the foreign people, places, and routines that used to define who they were. I get that this story is as emotionally decimating for her as it is for him. What I don’t understand is why she actively resists Tatum as if he were some sort of troll. They work into the script that she used to be an entirely different person before she met him, and before a certain event changed her perception of her family and her own identity. But until we find out what that event is, we are left with the staggering, black-and-white personality about-face which she seems all too happy to embrace. It makes us wonder how one event could have made her voluntarily leave this life in the first place and whether the car accident at the beginning of the film was the first she had survived. Her grasp of her own self-concept seems so tenuous that we wonder how long it would have been before she had simply lost interest in Leo and forgot about him even without the accident. I mean for crying out loud, she is afraid to go into her own art studio, to acknowledge that could have ever wanted to be an artist at any point in her life. She seems so disgusted by everything to which she used to be attracted as a result of only losing four years of her memory that it muddies the character.
I could have, however, forgiven this issue of character definition if that were The Vow‘s only problem. But as the film moves into its final two acts, all the popular conventions start cropping up like weeds in a garden. There is a love triangle involving Paige’s ex-fiance, there is a scene of Leo playing the guitar to show he’s sad and one of him taking in a stray cat to show that he’s lonely, and there is the pointed condemnation of the upper-class (rich guys = jerks). None of these things feel especially well-earned, in particular the “softer side of Leo” moments which only reiterated what Tatum’s performance had already clearly communicated. Not only that, but we’d also gotten a ham-fisted voice-over narration at the beginning, and again at the end, spelling out exactly how we should be feeling about what we were already seeing on screen. It’s something I really hate in movies of all genres; thanks Mr. Screenwriter, but I don’t need emotional subtitling.
But the worst contrivance is the plot device about the menus on which the couple wrote their titular vows; the reading of which finally makes Paige realize she really did love her husband once. Never mind the mountains of evidence in support of that hypothesis littering the film. The vows are written on the menu for a place called, and I shit you not, Cafe Mnemonic. Yup, as in Cafe Thing That Helps You Remember Stuff. Forget the fact that it’s a terrible, terrible name for an actual cafe, unless the owner were a die-hard Keanu Reeves fan, it’s a plot device so convenient it should be open 24/7 and offer unleaded as well as diesel.
The Upside: All in all, The Vow is a decent rom-dram that could have been exceptional if not for its reliance on convention and weak story elements. Tatum gives one of the best performances of his career, which is not a sentence I expected to write.
The Downside: It shoots itself in the foot with overbearing super-text and uncomfortably familiar tropes.
On the Side: The woman on which this story is based never regained her memory, but remained with her husband.