A surprisingly moving “Vow”

the vow

The Vow

dir. Michael Sucsy

Release Date: Feb 10, 12

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I probably should not have liked The Vow, because there are an astounding amount of reasons not to like it. If you’ve seen the trailer, you can probably figure out why. The central plot device of car-crashed induced amnesia is incredibly stupid, and I’d hoped that Grey’s Anatomy would have persuaded cinema to stop using these things. The movie is often brazenly heavy-handed, especially a soundtrack that gets Philip Glass-levels of invasive at all the wrong moments.

However, I’m about to lose any cool points I may have remaining and tell you how much I don’t care. By God, I liked The Vow. Director Michael Sucsy has a strange way of getting me to emotionally invest in things I otherwise might have loathed, as he previously helmed the surprisingly wonderful Grey Gardens TV movie, and he and his actors here work some strange magic on very uneven material. Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum play Paige and Leo, two twentysomethings who find themselves implicated in the Greatest Love Ever Known after they meet outside a DMV. As things go with heterosexuals, they quickly get married, but shortly after get rear-ended by a semi while making out with Meat Loaf playing in their car. This is what happens when you listen to Meat Loaf: God punishes you.

Because this is a movie, Paige and Leo survive the car wreck and are mysteriously nice looking for folks who were just flung through a windshield, but Paige can’t remember their relationship. Although she’s been living for the last five years as a pseudo-bohemian artist, the last thing she remembers is being in law school at Northwestern; she remembers the life that she gave up for Chicago, for a life with Leo. Her parents—Jessica Lange and Sam Neill, perfectly typecast—swoop in and decide that what would be best for her is to go home and be with the people that she remembers. In order to win her back and bring her home, Leo must make her remember their life together.

All of this is pretty Lifetime Channel, but is rendered with far more care, passion and nuance than a film of this caliber generally requires. What I especially admired about the film’s use of a tired trope was the way in which the script framed Paige’s amnesia as a choice. Paige can only remember her relationship with Leo if she wants to remember. Instead of watching her struggle to overcome a fake disease, we watch Paige decide whether leaving her old life behind was the right choice, whether the dictates of upper-middle class existence really did make her happy. The movie’s central question becomes one of identity: are we who we choose to be or are we where we come from? Are they two different things?

Of course, because it’s Hollywood, the film’s demarcation of class divides is silly. The film seems to think that Paige and Leo are struggling hipsters; however, they live in an incredibly expensive looking apartment while wearing effortlessly chic clothing. Clearly, this is the state of poverty in America. However, I really admired the way the film used its Chicago locations to give the film a lived-in intimacy and specificity. Whereas films like Wicker Park appropriate the image of Chicago without filming here, The Vow plays like a love letter to the city. The pervasive homage is infectious and sweet, even if Channing Tatum looks like no hipster in the history of Logan Square.

But most of all, the film works because the chemistry between the two leads is close to perfect. McAdams and Tatum, both rom-com and Nicholas Sparks vets, are old pros at this sort of thing. The fact that The Vow is not actually based off a Sparks novel gives the film some liberty to do things and go places that—aside from The Notebook—his films rarely do, and the script blends the requisite gravity of the situation with some real humor and surprising wisdom. Midway through the film, Leo tells Paige that he will do anything to win her back, that he wants to earn her love, and with perseverance, you know he will again. The film likewise earns ours.