Memory is such a unique, personal and generally indescribable thing, but it also works marvelously onscreen-- from common flashbacks to hazy half-remembrances that float onscreen, memories can tell stories more powerfully onscreen than most straightforward narratives, and in more evocative, cinematic ways. The Vow, even though it's a story about a woman struggling to regain her memory of her entire marriage, isn't interested in anything that creative or rich with potential. It's a straight shot down the middle of ooey-gooey romance territory, and as likable as Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum are, their presence is small comfort in a movie with so little else going on.
Living the picturesque bohemian life in the enormous but "scruffy" Chicago apartment you might know from a dozen other rom-coms, Leo (Tatum) and Paige (McAdams) are barely settled into newlywed life when a car accident-- not their fault, of course-- leaves Paige with a brain injury that reset her memory to more than five years earlier, when she was in law school, engaged to some finance twerp (Scott Speedman), and didn't know Leo at all. In a way that's more realistic for plot demands than what most humans would do, Paige has been completely estranged from her perfectly nice-seeming, WASPy parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), to the point that they've never met Leo at all. Waking up from her accident, Paige is drawn to the familiar presence of her parents, but decides to stick through it and go home with Leo to resume her regular life, even though she hardly knows him.
There are a few more narrative twists that keep The Vow from being total sentimentalist soup, and it's hard to deny it's unique to see a man attempting to woo a woman who's not only not particularly interested, but is legally bound to him. But the nuance in both their story and the world around them is completely forsaken-- Paige's whitebread, suburban life with her family is easily dismissed as "sweater-set wearing, blueberry mojito-drinking sorority girls," while Leo's band of hipster friends feel shipped over from an iPhone commercial to express "unique urban cool" in the least distinctive way imaginable. Even Paige's sculptures, which she worked on passionately before the accident but now has no interest in, are just abstract enough to be cool but also meaningless-- The Vow is full of manufactured quirk that's meant to set it apart, but it relies too often on stock characters and easy story complications to follow through on anything that's different.
An unnecessary and ludicrously sappy voiceover from Leo bookends The Vow and it had me wondering what it would be like to see the story from Paige's point of view-- waking up with her in the hospital to a world she didn't know, doubting him the same way she does, picking up on bits and pieces of a life we're learning too. Her confusion about her past and desire to move on are the most complex and unfathomable emotions in the film, but The Vow presses so hard on the buttons that make everything OK too quickly. Tatum's natural charm would have made Leo appealing no matter what, but directly Michael Sucsy overdoses on it, making him the picture of a perfect spouse (who also has a mighty six-pack, as flaunted in at least three shirtless scenes). And when Paige decides to move back in with her parents it's depicted as an awful choice, but we never see anything of her life with them-- only her storybook marriage with Leo-- to make the choice for ourselves. It's one thing to walk into a movie rooting for a romance, and another to have your hands tied from the very beginning.
Lucky for Tatum, he seems poised to jump out of the career rut that puts both this and the Nicholas Sparks dreck Dear John on his resume; unfortunately for McAdams, she's back to soppy romance 8 years after The Notebook, likely looking at where her co-star Ryan Gosling went from there and wondering how she got here. As always, I'm rooting for her to get out, and her rapport with Tatum is one of the few things to enjoy while The Vow unfolds its nuance-free love story. They're not enough to save it, but give how many rom-com stars seem as sleepy as the stories themselves, it's at least good to see the effort.