It is a simple scene, with a young man, Leo (Channing Tatum) trying to get the girl he loves, Paige (Rachel McAdams) to love him back. He has taken her to a restaurant, and after a good meal – waffles, actually – he challenges her to a game of “Chocolate Roulette”.
This consists of working your way through a box of chocolates without the benefit of a key to tell you what the fillings are. Some you’re going to like; others, not so much. Paige takes one, then another, then quips, “What are you trying to do, make me diabetic or just really fat?” She’s laughing as she says it, and she accidentally spits out a stray piece of chocolate into her hair – which only cracks them both up.
The moment stands out for its spontaneity and naturalness – my guess is that McAdams improvised the line, but even if she didn’t, the actors’ response to the faux-pas was clearly unplanned. And credit director Michael Sucsy for leaving it, as he was right to, because it definitely gives the scene a palpable lift. It’s a little reminder that mistakes happen all the time in real life, even though moviemakers spend enormous time and effort to iron them out.
On the whole, this movie, like most Hollywood movies, goes too far in that direction, serving up a sanitized and airbrushed version of life that’s easy to digest, but never rings quite true: the people are too good looking, their apartments are too big, their clothes are too expensive, their conversations are too cute. Nobody spits out food when they’re talking.
The funny thing is, the movie is actually about a tragic mistake, or rather a calamitous freak accident, one of those unexpected incursions of fate that can throw your entire life out of alignment. In this case, the girl, Paige, is thrown through a car windscreen. She suffers severe brain trauma and goes into a coma. When she wakes up she is fine – except that she has forgotten the last five years of her life. Five years in which she ditched her fiancé, dropped out of law school, became an artist, stopped speaking to her family, met a man, fell in love and married him. (The man was Leo by the way – the stranger who is trying to get her to fall back in love with him in the restaurant.)
That’s an incredible story in more ways than one. It’s also, so they tell us, inspired by a true story, so go figure. Life is stranger than fiction.
I wasn’t expecting much from The Vow: a tearjerker packaged for Valentine’s Day release with the stars of The Notebook and Dear John. But this story drew me in and held my interest. Would Paige get her memory back? If not, and she’s such a different girl from the woman Leo fell in love with, how can he still love her? Can he get her to fall in love with him all over again – now that she is back with her family, and smitten with the fiancé she doesn’t remember dumping?
These are real questions about the nature of love and identity and experience, and they’re ideas that have emotional force for the characters. That’s good storytelling.
What’s not so good: the movie draws a too easy contrast between the bohemian Paige who was Leo’s wife, and the conservative, square Paige who was a dutiful daughter. The dialogue is often clumsy and the acting only serviceable. And it’s absurd that Paige never asks why she cut off her family five years ago and changed her life so dramatically – that’s not such good storytelling.
Still, the movie works quite effectively. It’s sensitively scored by Rachel Portman and Michael Brook, makes a point of maximizing its Chicago locations, and more than anything it grants its characters more respect and dignity than you usually find in what is disparagingly called a chick flick. All in all, pretty good, worth a gamble if you’ve got a sweet tooth.