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'Notebook' spirals into blandness

Ryan Gosling of the seductive sloping features and Rachel McAdams of the laughing face and fetching form make such a handsome couple in The Notebook, it's too bad the filmmakers have provided them with characters as easy to read as the labels on a soup can.

Set mostly in 1940s South Carolina, The Notebook is the kind of "tasteful" romance, complete with a woody pastoral sheen, that programs young daters to lean on each other's shoulders and older couples to whimper continually before sharing one long climactic bawl.

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Gosling plays the working-class country boy with a love that's strong and deep, Mc- Adams the rich girl from the city who gets to know her authentic self when she falls for him one summer. As the narration tells us, they give "a remarkably convincing portrayal of a boy and girl traveling down a very long road with no regard to the consequences" until her ambitious mom (Joan Allen) calls the cops before they consummate their love.

The coitus interruptus is one of the few fresh scenes in the movie: The heroine says she won't be able to clear her head of buzzing thoughts unless the hero talks her through the lovemaking. Then Gosling's friend barges in to say the police are looking for her.

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The Golden-Pondy framing story glosses up even the film's few flashes of inspiration. James Garner reads from the handwritten notebook of the title to Gena Rowlands, whom we swiftly realize is McAdams' character a half-century older, now suffering from senile dementia. While the suspense in the '40s part comes from whether the heroine will wind up with her true love or an appealing substitute more her parents' type (James Marsden), the suspense in the present-day action comes from whether Garner will turn out to be Gosling or Marsden - and whether Rowlands will regain enough lucidity to recognize that the story Garner tells her is her own.

"Suspense" may be too strong a word. From one climax to the next, the filmmakers rarely jeopardize the chances for a heartwarming and miraculous outcome.

To their credit, director Nick Cassavetes (Rowlands' son) and screenwriter Jeremy Leven (working from Jan Sardi's screen adaptation) heighten the melodrama and seize on the most distinctive strokes of Nicholas Sparks' bland best seller. Gosling loves reading Walt Whitman (it helped him work through a boyhood stutter) and he pierces McAdams' heart when he rows her through a paradisiacal flock of water birds (ducks in the movie, geese in the book). And along with nascent heartthrob Marsden, the filmmakers actually improve on the character of Gosling's rival, making him dapper, witty and self-aware.

But they also turn McAdams' father into a slick worm with a wax mustache. And they paint a kitschy, cuddly picture of a degenerative disease. The Reagan family has been wonderfully up-front about the ravages of Alzheimer's. It would be a sad irony if The Notebook, a throwback to big-screen soap operas popular in the Reagan '80s, comforts his long-distance mourners with its maudlin certainties. Love has rarely conquered all - class conflict, World War II, dementia - with such luxurious ease.

The Notebook

Starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner and Gena Rowlands

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Rated PG-13

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Released by New Line Cinema

Time 121 minutes

Sun Score **


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