REVIEW: The Vow Barely Gets By With Rachel McAdams (and One Very Handsome Steak)
In The Vow, Rachel McAdams plays Paige, a Chicago sculptor who's wife to Leo (Channing Tatum), the owner of a recording studio. The two are talking about starting a family, clearly giddily in love, when they get into a car accident that results in Paige taking a slow-motion header through the windshield. She sustains a brain injury that leaves her with amnesia, losing all memory of meeting and having a relationship with Leo. He finds himself having to convince the woman he married of the depth and strength of their connection when to her he might as well be a stranger.
While all of the above is true of the film, the second from Michael Sucsy (who also directed the 2009 Drew Barrymore/Jessica Lange Grey Gardens), it buries the lede, which is that Paige is missing everything that happened in the last few years -- not just Leo, but moving to the city from the upscale suburb of Lake Forest in which she grew up, leaving law school to become an artist, breaking off her engagement with smarmy attorney Jeremy (Scott Speedman) and cutting ties with her family after a giant fight, the details of which we don't learn until late in the film. She's shocked to find that she gave up straightening her hair, that she lives in a funky loft and wears boho clothing, that she's become a vegetarian and, if the gasp she gives when told that Barack Obama is president and she voted for him is any indication, that she only relatively recently became a Democrat.
Indeed, Paige has forgotten how to be a hipster. Post-trauma, to Leo's bemusement, she orders blueberry mojitos, wears prim dresses, gets highlights and declares her favorite book to be The Beach House by James Patterson. Leo first encountered Paige after a series of major life changes (we see, in flashback, how they met at the DMV) and had never met her parents, played by Sam Neill and Jessica Lange, before their arrival at the hospital shortly after she comes out of her coma. Stuffily dressed and taut faced, they have a campy suburban gothic air to them, and are delighted to be able to welcome their daughter back into their lives as if they'd never fought in the first place -- which they essentially didn't, since she has no memory of it. The two parties wage cultural warfare over the dazed Paige, one side offering the comforts of the familiar, including her family and posh childhood home, the other the urban life and love she chose instead.
These themes of what makes up one's identity, and whether Paige is still the woman with whom Leo fell in love without the experiences that came to define her, are a lot more solid than the romance aspects of The Vow. McAdams can turn up the charisma and make (almost) any role grounded and watchable, even multiple ones involving time travel and memory loss. Tatum is like a very handsome steak. Unfortunately, he's the one saddled with the swoony, Nicholas Sparksesque burdens in the story, from a voiceover about love and fate delivered in an earnest monotone, to spelling out "MOVE IN?" in blueberries when serving Paige breakfast, to accidentally complementing the aesthetic merits of her scrap pile instead of the sculpture in progress she's working on. He just isn't expressive enough an actor to carry all of Leo's pining and heartbreak, as he suffers through Paige's unintended cruelty as she tries and fails to connect with him and the person she used to be. "I'm so tired of disappointing you," she tells him after he reacts with exasperated sadness to her inability to remember their past, and it's an unintended consequence of the casting that she seems reasonable and right in considering moving on, and that one doesn't feel the need to blubber in response, "But you're meant to be together!"
The Vow, which is based on the story of real-life couple Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, doesn't turn out to be as gauzily sentimental as its beginning (or its marketing materials) suggests; though this probably isn't intentional, it ends up making the argument that one's romantic memories don't tend to translate well when shared, as Leo walks Paige through the things they used to do as a couple, from the restaurant in which they used to eat (named, heh, Cafe Mnemonic) to the lakeside spot where they would skinny dip. But the most loving gesture in the film is its consideration that what may be best for someone's happiness is letting them go, no matter how painful that may be. The ending is -- spoiler alert? -- an upbeat one, but it's one the film drifts into, no last-minute gallop through an airport or desperate clinch in the rain. It's a more grown-up conclusion than you'd expect, but feels anticlimactic when taken in the context of the story's wobbles between realism and glossy, larger-than-life love story. Seriously, couldn't he have restored a house for her or something?