Directed by Michael Sucsy
Paige (Rachel McAdams) and her husband Leo (Channing Tatum) sit in a parked car, minding their own business and talking about getting pregnant, as married people do, when a truck, blinded by the picturesque and not particularly blinding snow, rams into their vehicle. They both survive, but Paige, having suffered major head trauma, wakes up in the hospital with no memory of Leo, or anything that's happened to her in the past five years. Basically, brain damage turns Paige's life into one of those 80s sequels where everything reverts back to the way it was at the beginning of the first movie; Leo, then, has to go all Ghostbusters 2 on their love, trying to win her heart all over again.
Here's the real twist: The Vow isn't based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. It's based on, er, excuse me, inspired by the next-best thing: true events! I can't imagine, though, that the real-life equivalents of Paige and Leo lived with such romance-novel bliss before their accidents. In early flashbacks, we see a Cliffs Notes version of Paige and Leo's relationship; in the movie's telling, it appears to consist almost entirely of romantic gestures on the part of a frequently shirtless Leo, like the box of meds he brings Paige at work when she has a cold, or the proposals he makes by spelling out words on her blueberry pancakes.
Yet this vaguely childish shorthand for a meaningful relationship does give Paige's memory loss a bittersweet, sometimes funny kick: what if your wife suddenly can't recall any of the movie-ready love displays you've crafted over the years? As hokey as The Vow's premise is, it turns out to be irresistible, too; Paige engages in a kind of real-world time travel (McAdams should be familiar with this, having costarred in the Time Traveler's Wife movie). She wakes up the person she remembers from five years ago: an aspiring lawyer, not an emerging sculptor; chummy with her WASPy parents, not estranged from them; engaged to Jeremy (Scott Speedman! Boo! Hiss!), not married to Leo. The reflections on identity and romantic permanence aren't subtle or Eternal Sunshine-style poetic, but they are engaging, and the re-courtship of Paige doesn't have the toxic, humorless righteousness of a Sparks romance.
That's The Vow in a nutshell: it may be sappy and silly, but at least it's not Sparksy. Even if Paige's wealthy, evil-ish, Leo-averse parents come straight from bad romantic melodrama, at least they're neither as saintly as the Sparks-style Fifth Commandment parental ideal nor as irredeemably rotten as they might seem at first. Even Jeremy really just has a case of lawyer smarm, which is about the best you can hope for with Speedman in the role.
It's not the best you can hope for regarding McAdams, whose serious movie-star screen-lighting chops have been put to more productive use in a diverse slate of superior mainstream movies (Mean Girls; Red Eye; The Family Stone), but here she deserves credit for shouldering more complex emotions opposite her puppyish, audience-baiting screen husband. Tatum, for his part, has made appropriately large strides (or at least lurches) in his likability as a leading man—he cracks jokes now! And waxes poetic about the warmth of in-studio jam sessions! It must be said that he is not an ideal philosophical narrator, although the philosophical narration does him no favors: the writing circles around ideas like "moments of impact define who you are," presumably because that sounds deeper and more wondrous than "stuff happens to you while you are alive."
It's this kind of soft-focus sentiment that dulls the movie even when the actual cinematography remains crisp. But if The Vow remains more of a genre-qualified achievement than a genuine one —pretty good for this sort of thing, you may find yourself thinking—it also shows how palatable this sort of thing can be when it plays fair with its central gimmick, lets its stars act with honesty, and uses actual good music on its soundtrack (The National! Robyn! OK Go! The Cure!). It's amazing, really, what leaving God out of things can do.
Opens February 10