When a tragic accident erases all memory of a woman’s marriage from her mind, her husband must work overtime to recreate the spark that caused her to fall in love with him, in “The Vow,” a complaisant date-night bauble designed for romantic indelibility, right down to its touching true-story roots. Inspired by the case of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter (upgraded to Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams onscreen), “The Vow” reps that most welcome kind of Valentine’s Day offering, focusing on the feelings that bring couples closer — a recipe for big February B.O. and long-lasting ancillary.
Leo (Tatum) can’t believe his luck. Somehow he managed to wed a woman, Paige (McAdams), he thinks is out of his league. She’s an artist; he runs a small recording studio. Together, they live a seemingly perfect, boho-chic existence … until a dump truck plows through the back of their scrappy hatchback, sending Paige through the windshield and into a coma that leaves her memory partially wiped.
When she comes to in the hospital, she remembers everything up to law school, thinks she’s still in love with former fiance Jeremy (Scott Speedman) and can’t wrap her mind around the idea that she ever would have traded in such a seemingly perfect life to marry Leo.
As if fate isn’t a cruel enough adversary in his efforts to win Paige back, he also has to contend with her family and pesky ex. Sam Neill and Jessica Lange play Paige’s controlling parents, who seize the opportunity of their daughter’s accident to pave over a catastrophic falling-out five years earlier, while Jeremy, fetching yet flat, takes wicked delight in Paige’s inability to remember the reason they broke up.
Had the incident — or some variation of it — not happened to a real couple, auds might chalk it up to the worst possible abuse of Hollywood’s favorite lazy-screenwriting tool: dramatically expedient amnesia. But “The Vow” doesn’t play by the rules of other selective-memory-loss movies, where jagged flashbacks provide glimpses into the protag’s mysterious past, culminating in a well-timed flood of revelation; Paige’s best memories are gone, never to return.
Hence, the pic leans on Leo’s perspective in this seemingly unthinkable situation — his driving force to win her back is the strength of all the personal moments the two of them shared, bundled into a 15-minute greatest-hits reel at the film’s outset: Their meet-cute at the DMV, a thoughtful get-well delivery at the restaurant where she works (Cafe Mnemonic — get it?), etc. As he struggles to win her back, the memories continue to motivate him.
Take a step back, and it’s impossible not to notice that these flashbacks all share one thing in common: They all feature Leo going above and beyond to make Paige happy. If she weren’t so darn pretty, straight male auds might begin to question what’s so special about a woman in such constant need of wooing. Everyone else is encouraged to think he loves nothing more than trying to earn her love, garnishing scene after scene of superhuman patience with close-ups of Tatum’s watery eyes and glimpses of body parts typically reserved exclusively for Paige.
Her dilemma would be easier to swallow if Tatum were less swoon-inducing as the poor sod stuck trying to win her back. He compensates somewhat by delivering his lines in a sort of Neanderthal stupor, downplaying the cockiness of his previous roles. Even so, what teenage girl wouldn’t trade her best memories to wake up in a hospital bed married to the studly “Step Up” star?
Coming off HBO’s critically acclaimed “Grey Gardens” telepic, director Michael Sucsy adapts well to a genre dominated in recent years by Nicholas Sparks adaptations (the casting of McAdams, star of Alzheimer’s weepie “The Notebook,” can be no coincidence). With its stately crane shots and plaintive score, “The Vow” feels as unabashedly sentimental as those melodramas, but resists the cloying impulse to manufacture tragedy for easy tears. It’s also wonderfully specific, fabricating details about Leo and Paige’s relationship against which girls will judge their suitors for decades to come.
Still, as “The Vow” flirts with the fantasy of a woman torn between two handsome and wholly devoted suitors, it feels like an ice-cream shopping spree in which you can have any flavor you want, so long as it’s vanilla. Gone is the suspense of a great love-triangle movie, replaced with the ultra-romantic notion that if the heavens really wanted Leo and Paige to be together, their chemistry would be strong enough to transcend having to start over.