Rachel McAdams was still in her hospital bed, recovering from her forehead-first slow motion journey through a car windshield, when I began envisioning a drinking game themed around The Vow. One shot for any mention of the title word. Maybe two for “moment of impact” since it has a double meaning. McAdams plays Paige, whose traumatic brain injury – a real moment of impact (drink) – causes her to lose all memories of her strapping husband Leo (Channing Tatum), including their first encounter, at the DMV – another moment of impact (drink). I know my wandering mind suggests a certain lack of respect but it’s also a compliment. This sugary sweet chick flick is so rich in its ripeness and full in its foolishness that I look forward to groaning in happy horror when I inevitably see it again, whether while drinking or when laid low by the kind of flu whose symptoms include a desire to watch Meg Ryan rom coms on cable.
Before the fateful car accident, Paige was an artist, working on a commission of reclining metal nudes that call to mind the works of Henry Moore if Henry Moore had scratched his sculptures and driven over them with trucks when the metal was still warm. She and Leo lived in a cool warehouse apartment in Chicago and hung out with a crowd just one fedora closer to hipster than the Happy Endings gang. After the accident Paige wrinkles her nose at her crocheted dresses, looks bemused by the news that she voted for Obama (the senator?” she asks) and regards Leo with the kind of caution women usually reserve for a man in a dark alley.
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The real Paige had dropped out of law school five years earlier, embraced vegetarianism and got a tattoo. Bruised-brain Paige wonders where her law degree is, happily crunches down bacon and looks askance at the flower smack in the middle of her lovely back. The first chance she gets she buys herself a shift dress and cardigan. In this show-down between acquired liberalism and conservative roots, she turns into Jennifer Garner. And not down-to-earth Mrs. Affleck of the mom jeans and sneakers, we’re talking 13 Going on 30 Garner — unapologetically immature and confused by adulthood.
That movie used a sort of magical realism — a teenager’s impossible wish mysteriously granted — to achieve a disconnect between its heroine’s perception of herself and what the rest of the world saw. The Vow uses the much more straightforward medical explanation of a little amnesia but the results are similar. Paige looks like a grown woman but she acts like a little girl. There’s a scene where she peddles into the frame on a bike with a big old basket on the front, dismounts and petulantly tosses it onto her parent’s lawn; she’s 30 Going on 19. But bruised-brain Paige isn’t purely naive. She has elements of Garner’s mean rich girl in Arthur and McAdam’s own parody of a spoiled woman in Midnight in Paris. This Paige is entirely less appealing. “She’s a sweater-set-wearing, blueberry mojito-drinking sorority girl,” Leo says, dumbfounded by this new incarnation of his wife. Playing dumbfounded is Channing Tatum’s greatest natural talent. He’s also good at sweet and handy with sad. What he’s terrible at is narrating – whenever director Michael Sucsy cuts to Leo’s voiceover it was like being forced to suffer through a high school jock reading aloud in English class.
Paige’s regression includes returning to the bosom of her family, Stepford Mommy (Jessica Lange, who manages to pull one good scene out of the mawkishness) and Daddy (Sam O’Neill, hilariously menacing) while also making eyes at the former fiancée she dumped along with her law studies. That guy, Jeremy, is played by Scott Speedman (Felicity), a casting choice that caused a soft moan to ripple through the predominantly female audience at the advance screening I attended. What a dilemma. Cut to Leo grumbling to a friend about the indignity of his role in the Paige-Jeremy reunion; being “her stranger husband c–k blocking her all night.”
The Vow never moved me, but it did amuse me by milking these situations for humor in a way a Nicholas Sparks adaptation would never do. The classism at play is so improbable it’s funny. Leo runs a recording studio, which the Paige parentis regard as the equivalent of cleaning sewers. When Daddy approaches Leo wielding a bottle of Glenlivet, he might as well be offering a cup of hemlock. The comedy of the screenplay – credited to a sizeable crew that includes director Sucsy, the co-writers of Never Been Kissed and He’s Just Not That Into You and a Parenthood and Friday Night Lights scribe – strikes me as not altogether inadvertent, even though this is first and foremost a mushy gushy super sappy love story.
This is McAdams’s third unabashedly romantic movie, a formula that works for her, even though she’s a much more versatile and clever actress than projects like The Notebook and The Time Traveler’s Wife would suggest. She is as deft at projecting adorable vulnerability as Julia Roberts ever was. There’s a grin cradled in the parenthesis of deep dimples. Then there is a look I like to think of as her debutante’s delight, a sideways glance accompanied by a dip of her eyelashes. She’s obviously aware of the effect, and McAdams is still coasting along in that happiest stage in a rom com queen’s career, when the audience loves her grins and gimmicks unreservedly. They don’t seem like a crutch. Not yet anyway.