There’s a strange subversion at the heart of The Vow, but the movie probably doesn’t even realize it. This latest contender in the Valentine’s Day tearjerker sweepstakes — about a man who has to woo his wife all over again after she gets amnesia in the wake of a horrific car crash — does have the by-now fairly standard formula: Romantic bliss tragically ruined by chance, with an assist from stuffed-shirt parents who just don’t understand, leading to lots of melancholy yearning. But something feels a little off, conceptually – and it’s not just the fact that Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore did a better variation on a similar theme in the comedy 50 First Dates.
The thing is, the real plot point here isn’t that adorable, North Side sculptor Paige (Rachel McAdams), the free-spirited artist wife of hipster music producer Leo (Channing Tatum) loses her memory; it’s that she essentially relapses to an earlier and (according to the movie, at least) lesser self. After her accident, Paige forgets all about Leo and begins to return to her former life as a law student and the wealthy socialite daughter of conservative, perpetually disapproving judge Sam Neill (whose reaction shots in the film surely merit some kind of drinking game, or at least a YouTube compilation). She even goes back to her über-corporate, super-douche ex-boyfriend (Scott Speedman) And guess what? She enjoys it! She loves hanging out with her shallow, rich friends, having colorful drinks, eating meat (she used to be a vegetarian), and reading James Patterson novels. This is not, in other words, a girl who was living a life she didn’t want. In the world of The Vow, identity is mutable, malleable, and all you need to revert back to a discarded self is to get rear-ended by a truck – shockingly anathema in a genre that usually traffics in woozy notions of true selves and true loves.
All this might have made for an interesting film, but The Vow botches the execution. Tatum has to do most of the emotional heavy lifting here as the tortured one, but his pain feels skin deep. He can display vulnerability, but it’s a decidedly puppy dog kind. When, near the end of the film, he asks, “How do you look at the girl you love and tell yourself it’s time to walk away?” it should destroy us; instead, it barely raises our pulse. He seems like a kid picking up his marbles and going home. Tatum is not a bad actor per se (though let us never hear him give a monologue about Thom Yorke’s twitching fingers ever again) but as a romantic, he’s a black hole of charisma. Ironic, too, because McAdams herself is so good at conveying the genuine agony of love — even though her character is the one that’s supposed to be ambivalent.
The Vow isn’t terrible — there’s some nice Chicago location work and director Michael Sucsy (previously responsible for the HBO version of Grey Gardens) certainly has a real feel for visual space. The car accident itself has a kind of grotesque elegance — when McAdams flies through that windshield in slow-motion, she almost seems to be moving through time. And who knows, maybe Tatum’s blankness may work for those able to project their own inner lives into his empty eyes. But the imbalance of emotional temperatures at the film’s heart feels fatal for something so dependent on chemistry.