It’s too bad every complacent couple can’t have one spouse lose all memory of the other. As evidenced by The Vow, being forced into a clean-slate courtship is a great way to cure mid-marriage malaise. The zealous effort to woo is restored. What was tired is fresh again. Indeed, it makes the simple renewal of vows look like the work of lazy slugs. Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) aren’t old enough to have fully nestled into married life, but Leo is nevertheless compelled to dust off his game when Paige suffers head trauma from a car crash and can’t recall that the tall drink of whey protein at her bedside is the same one who’s been between her sheets. Based on the tale of a real-life couple who stalwartly gave amnesia the wedding-banded finger, this Valentine’s Day date magnet is a proud cheerleader of love conquering all. It might have been better if the script, the sets, or just about anything else in its visual palette had the bottled-lighting ease of Tatum and McAdams’s quiet chemistry. This is a movie whose true romance has virtually nothing to do with the movie itself.
Writers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, two of the folks you can blame for Valentine’s Day, attempt to put a serious spin on 50 First Dates, while director and co-writer Michael Sucsy (HBO’s Grey Gardens) attempts to bring a yuppie catalog to life. If it isn’t a match made in hell, it’s at least one that’ll make you squirm and wince at its affectations, which position Tatum as a philosopher and drench the whole production in unspoken brands (straw hat by Ralph Lauren, sweater by J. Crew, breakfast and “farmer’s market strawberries” by Ina Garten, rosemary- and pomegranate-dressed table by Martha Stewart). That Tatum is your guide through all of this is immensely problematic. His ability to instill any sort of real feeling, frustration, or distress into bad dialogue and worse narration is nil, and since he isn’t exactly working with scribes like Aaron Sorkin, this is getting to be a career-spanning problem. In a sense, he’s the male answer to Kristen Stewart, a novice whose brand and beauty led to rapid A-List status, but left no instructions on how to put life behind lines. To hear him employ studly hesitance while talking about “moments of impact” and people being “the sum total of their memories” is to withstand the same insults lobbed at our intelligence by Bella Swan. It’s as put-on as the pearls, pressed pants, and smiles of Paige’s estranged parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), whose surname of Thornton could just as well be switched to Hilfiger.
McAdams is as lovely as ever, bringing charm, fear, and curiosity to her scenes as she peers around like a lost cat. Paige remembers everything about her life before Leo, a life that saw her studying law instead of making sculpture, dating Scott Speedman instead of His Tatumness, and eating filet mignon instead of tofu. Her wound-back recognition proves gravitational, and along with her deceptive parents (who are harboring an ultimately humdrum secret), it pulls her toward her conservative past, every member of which is curiously eager to welcome back the girl who skipped town and didn’t write. This makes Leo the odd liberal out, a modest recording-studio owner who skin-crawlingly quotes Thom Yorke and has to glean advice from his doting friends, your typical gaggle of Magic 8-Balls with legs. Will Leo free wifey from her upper-crust déjà vu? Will he fulfill the brilliant promise of the first scene, when he sang along to Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”? Will he end the tedium of his stoic surprise at the things Paige suddenly likes?
Very fortunately, there’s an alternate universe swirling in the eye of The Vow‘s synthetic storm, a place occupied only by Tatum and McAdams, where the link between them cuts down the filmmakers’ bad instincts. Tatum isn’t much of a force on his own, but his co-star elicits a smooth naturalism in the intimate scenes they share, such as those that see Paige cutely investigating the life she forgets, and Leo looking on with a knowing smirk. “Who’s the president?” “Do you work?” The questions are posed by McAdams with a perfect childlike sincerity, and the awkward, good-sport affection Leo offers back rings true. The rapport allows the progression of the reconnection to trump Tatum’s ever-dreadful insights, and for every silly shirtless scene that placates the target audience (wouldn’t you know it…Leo sleeps in the nude), there’s a moment that’s terribly adorable, like a post-dinner feast on chocolates that’s clearly blessed with a little improv from both actors. The film is fortunate that its couple is able to eclipse it, and that it unwittingly captures the good old sensation of all else falling away when lovers are together. What Tatum and McAdams create has a genuine sweetness. Everything else is as saccharine and prepackaged as the cheap treats at Leo and Paige’s favorite haunt, Café Mnemonic, where the latte foam isn’t the only thing on the nose.