• Committing to the High Romance of The Notebook

    Annie Berke on Pre-Ken Ryan Gosling and the Campless Excess of the 2004 Adaptation

    This conversation is presented in partnership with the Refocus Film Festival, a four-day celebration of the art of adaptation and hosted by Iowa City’s nonprofit cinema, FilmScene. The 2nd annual Refocus Film Festival will take place in Iowa City October 12-15, 2023. Passes are on sale now, with individual tickets and full festival announcements coming in September.


    I start, as all essays nowadays must, with Barbie. In July of this year, director Greta Gerwig revealed to Rolling Stone her logic for casting intense heartthrob Ryan Gosling as whiny, baby-patriarch Ken: “The way we talked about Ken was as in-depth character work as I’ve ever done with anyone about anything… I don’t know that anyone has ever invested more in making people understand the plight of this man.” Gerwig is far from the first person to notice Gosling’s thorough, disciplinary streak; the newly rebranded X is a-Twitter with the many ways in which the actor has “committed” to the bit, on-screen and off.

    And while Gosling has played romantic leads in darker, artsier films (Drive and Blue Valentine spring to mind), his ardor finds a more middlebrow home in the 2004 film The Notebook. Adapted 20 years ago from the Nicholas Sparks novel, director Nick Cassavetes’s fourth feature film follows Southern belle Allie (Rachel McAdams) as she chooses between her wild card of a first flame (Gosling) and a perfect-on-paper fiancé (James Marsden) who never loses out in love triangles like these.

    The movie is all sunsets and period hairdos and smoldering staring contests. Much of the story takes place just before, then after, World War II, but there is one battle scene, minimal carnage. There are certainly no integrated battalions, no whisper of internment camps on the other side of the country; across the globe, the hydrogen bomb detonates without a sound. The heart of Dixie, where society ladies faint in renovated plantation estates, is as white as the driven snow.

    The Notebook is devoted to the central couple with such single-mindedness that all context and ambiguity is squeezed out of the frame. The only history that matters is Noah and Allie’s history. The romance genre is so seductive—the clothes, the tearful expressions, the whole “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird” of it all—that one forgets, or chooses to ignore, all that must be redacted for the fantasy to function.

    Though the world of The Notebook is all excess, camp is forbidden, lest illusion break apart and the world get in. The Notebook is not just a portrait of romantic commitment but, importantly, of narrative and aesthetic commitment. It commits to the bit of High Romance, without a wink, a smirk, or the subtlest fracturing of the fourth wall.

    I can’t approve of this movie, and by all rights, I could hate it. But I am enthralled.

    I can’t approve of this movie, and by all rights, I could hate it. But I am enthralled. How rare to find a contemporary romantic drama, so earnest and unapologetic, that isn’t about God, cancer, or horses. The Notebook swoons over its own generic affiliation, and I get swept up.

    Maybe I’m a Millennial who raised herself on Gen-X movies. I self-consciously fashioned myself after a 90s-era Janeane Garofalo, and I have the brown lipstick to prove it. But for the two hours it takes me to watch the film, I drop the irony. I have to commit to the bit or I won’t survive.

    It feels weird. It feels… dangerous? It feels like falling in love.


    Where were you when Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling kissed on the stage of the MTV Movie Awards? For those too young, too old, or too evolved to know, the MTV Movie Awards dispenses honors including “Best Fight,” “Best Villain,” and, of course, “Best Kiss.” Other honorees of the latter prize include Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar (Cruel Intentions), Noah Centineo and Lana Condor (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), and Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight—yes, the Academy Award-winning film).

    In 2005, Gosling, 24, and McAdams, 26, at this point a public couple in real life, collected their Golden Popcorn statuettes and re-enacted the smooch for the famous and unfamous alike. With each rewatch of the clip (all for research, every single one), I discover a new detail. Both performers adjust their bodies theatrically: he stretches his neck and shakes his body like an athlete (hot), she hikes up her strapless corset like a middle schooler at a semi-formal (adorable). The actors, confident in their shared shine, stride across the stage, and she lands an effortless leap into his arms—practiced, one imagines, in private as much as on-screen.

    Looking back, I feel like I must have been 13, 14 years old when I watched this, but numbers don’t lie: I was in college. I can only say that I felt like a teenager watching it, or that this media stunt triggered a brief, powerful second adolescence in me.

    “It was my pleasure,” Gosling leers on stage. But was it? The behind-the-scenes drama hits differently now: that the two allegedly conducted regular screaming matches, that Gosling tried to have McAdams fired, that they fell for each other only once filming wrapped. By all reports—reports I choose to believe—Gosling is a nice guy, and, having read Pride and Prejudice at the best/worst moment of my development, I might be prone to giving passes to difficult, brilliant men. For better or for worse, Gosling the actor, demanding a new scene partner because McAdams wasn’t “giving him anything,” blurs into the entitled, brooding, hot-blooded Noah.

    Despite all its ambivalence—or because of it—this kiss stands as a powerful time capsule of a post-Y2K pop culture moment. There’s Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan, as jurors and MTV elder stateswomen, bestowing their approval as an overwhelmingly white crowd hoots and roars. On stage, Gosling chews gum, reading less as “valley girl” than “second coming of gritty, blasé 1970s actor.” (I echo other commentators when I note that, on occasion, this Canadian actor has an inexplicable New Yawk accent.) He runs his fingers through McAdams’s signature Rachel hairdo.

    Gosling became a knight in shining armor without turning in his weirdo card, and for this, we can thank—or blame—The Notebook.

    And then there’s that Darfur t-shirt. Ah, that feeling of knowing the sartorial trend, the celebrity news item, far better than anything about an 18-plus-year genocidal conflict. Hello darkness, my old friend. Is reality about to worm its way, sad and real and complicated, into the fantasy?

    The couple, having accepted the prize, proceeds backstage, and you can see that a website about Darfur is printed on the back of Gosling’s shirt. But it’s blurry, and my attention is fixed on McAdams’s hand, resting on the small of her boyfriend’s back.

    I’m not proud, not of any of it. But I am transported. He snaps his Juicy fruit, crooks his finger, and I take off at a sprint. Replay.


    “You’re a real, um, what’s the word I’m looking for?”
    “Knight in shining armor?”
    “Weirdo. That was the word.” (La La Land, 2016)

    Before his glow-up with movies like Crazy Stupid Love and La La Land, Gosling was the second coming of Edward Norton, a scrawny, weaselly Method throwback. Before The Notebook, he played a neo-Nazi (The Believer) and a sociopathic killer (Murder by Numbers), and afterwards, a drug addict with girl problems (Half Nelson), the devoted boyfriend of a dead-eyed sex doll (Lars and the Real Girl), and a sad-sack husband and father armed with the twee-est of ukuleles (Blue Valentine). Gosling became a knight in shining armor without turning in his weirdo card, and for this, we can thank—or blame—The Notebook. 

    As Gosling remembers it, Cassavetes explained to his leading man, “You’re not handsome, you’re not cool, you’re just a regular guy who looks a bit nuts.” The actor seems to have taken the note—not just in this movie but in nearly all the ones to follow. His characters are passionate and committed to a fault. In La La Land, where the allusion to James Dean is surely no coincidence, it’s to jazz; in Drive, it’s driving/not talking/loving Carey Mulligan. In Murder by Numbers, it’s murder; in All Good Things, it’s murder again. And with Gosling, the commitment is nothing less than pre-meditated.

    This is probably why he sings so much in movies, despite—no offense intended—his not being the World’s Best Singer. He can warble, and he can sell it, but his amateur pipes are on purpose. His emotions are so deep and intense that speech can’t capture them, and a polished solo wouldn’t read as sufficiently raw. Contrary to what “I’m Just Ken” suggests, Gosling is only hot when he’s in his feelings.

    Contrary to what “I’m Just Ken” suggests, Gosling is only hot when he’s in his feelings.

    Instead of bursting out the tunes in The Notebook, he finds equally theatrical ways to grab his beloved’s attention, some of which are downright self-destructive and kind of scary. Who dangles off a Ferris wheel, literally threatening suicide, until a beautiful stranger consents to a date? In this, our year of 2023, The Notebook should probably come with a Jackass-style warning: Men, do not try this at home. Unless, unless… hear me out…

    For Noah to commit, Gosling has to commit. To behold the character is to witness Gosling’s performance is to admire the actor’s craft; this isn’t quite the same as admiring his oddball stalker characters, though it isn’t very different either. The line between the character and the actor can be considerable, but in the case of Noah and Gosling, two men who share a love for Allie/Rachel’s face, it’s as narrow as the divide between cherished artifacts and bad objects.

    I just want to see this movie without it looking back at me; I’m trying to outsmart a film that wears its heart on its sleeve.


    The Notebook privileges female desire, catering to women viewers within the feminized genre of the romantic melodrama. It does this by tapping into the feeling of being on the receiving end of an unrelentingly monogamous male gaze—and proceeds, happily, to have a bit of spiteful fun with it.

    Enter McAdams.

    The first moment that Noah notices Allie, she is playing bumper cars. She throws her rich brunette locks back and laughs. Allie laughs a lot. What is she laughing at? (Seriously, what is she laughing at?) It’s not as though a single character cracks a joke the whole time. Characters are flirtatious, playful, and “think they’re so smart, don’t they,” but they aren’t funny. And while Allie smiles, sniggers, smirks, and giggles, red fingernails coyly covering her red lipstick, her open-mouthed guffaw is her superpower, making her irresistible to the same men who call her impossible.

    Her coltish, unselfconscious laughter cements her credentials as a good girl with few worries, while hinting that, beneath her trust fund exterior, there lives a sensual, earthy spirit. On the page, Allie is indecisive, frozen by her desire to do right by everyone. In execution, the actress brings a kind of mischievous, even a light meanness, to the role. She knows what we want to see—Gosling’s Big, Sexy Grief—and she pulls it out of him for our entertainment. If there is any degree of self-awareness, dare I say camp, in this movie, this is where it lives. That could be what she’s laughing about.

    Am I detecting traces of McAdams’s performance as the devilish Regina George in Mean Girls, which came out the same year? Is it that McAdams is a more interesting performer than Allie is a character? Or am I picking up on the actors’ shared antipathy? I know that if Allie was such a sensitive soul, as much of a pushover, frankly, as the script suggests—if it was only her job to change, his to stand as constant as the North Star—the two could never feel as evenly matched as they do. Noah badgers, manipulates, and coerces Allie into loving him, and she makes him pay for it.

    How rare to find a contemporary romantic drama, so earnest and unapologetic, that isn’t about God, cancer, or horses.

    You could make the argument that any film where a woman chooses between two men is feminist; I’m not saying you should, but you could. What might be more accurate is that, while not all female fantasies are feminist, The Notebook offers what, for example, Fifty Shades of Grey cannot: the power of choice. Handwringing and Ferris-wheel-dangling aside, ultimately, the film’s action pivots on what Allie wants. On learning that Allie has strayed with Noah, Marsden’s Lon weighs his options aloud to his wife-to-be: Should he shoot Noah? Beat him up? Leave her? The problem, as he explains it: “None of those options get me you. And in spite of everything, I love you.”

    Is it just the right thing to say, or dead wrong? Parse the lines for compassion or passive-aggression or martyrdom, but the fact remains that Lon is too collected, too deliberate, in his delivery. This is not the kind of guy who is going to rage-build your dream house—Allie’s betrayal doesn’t even put his tie askew. And it is ultimately the problematic Noah who asks just the right questions to complete this romantic fantasy. “Would you stop thinking about what everyone wants?” he begs an indecisive Allie. “Stop thinking about what I want, what he wants, what your parents want. What do you want?”

    Noah wants Allie throughout the film and does several strenuous stunts to prove it. But in this moment, what Noah wants is to be wanted. He wants to be the Allie, you feel me? Flipping the male gaze this way isn’t exactly a masterstroke in radical gender politics, but boy do I wish it was.


    Time heals all wounds, but it creates new ones. The spiky rapport of the young leads dissipates with the film’s frame story, in which an elderly man with a heart condition (James Garner) tells the story of Noah and Allie to a woman in a memory care facility (Gena Rowlands). He’s reading from a notebook—the notebook (eh?). Twenty years later, and, well, this far into the essay, I must issue the following spoiler: Garner is Noah, Rowlands is Allie, and in recounting this tale, he is trying to jog her memory of their life together.

    Garner and Rowlands’s Noah and Allie do not have knockdown, drag-out fights like their youthful counterparts; they look into one another’s eyes searchingly, they slow dance, they hold hands. Presumably, they fought through the years, because young Noah says that will be their thing, and since when is he ever wrong? Their occasionally destructive passion has matured, mellowed, transmuted into a love so cosmically powerful that they can close their eyes and die together at will. (Sorry, another spoiler.)

    I’ve been waiting to outgrow The Notebook far longer than the seven years that Allie waited for Noah.

    “I think our love can do anything we want it to,” Noah assures Allie right before they succumb to death, curled up together in a hospital bed. In this moment, the movie speaks directly to the viewer, or maybe just to me: You’ve come this far, don’t stop now. Lie down in the street and let the spectacular sentimentality strike you down. This movie can do anything we want it to!

    And haven’t I earned it after that earlier scene—you know, that scene—in which Rowlands’s Allie temporarily regains her memory, only to lose it again in a flash? In true “sundowning” fashion, she recoils from her husband and panics, fighting the nurses with terror in her voice, while Garner’s Noah breaks down in tears.

    I cry every time, and I could assemble some clever, analytical rationale, but, mostly, it’s really sad. It’s no fun to watch Garner suffer. Maybe it’s his age, or that he doesn’t have that confusing, off-brand, Ken doll face that you want to kiss, or slap, or both. My heart shatters along with Garner’s, and it breaks more willingly each time, as I gear up for all the bold, shameless saccharine still to come.


    A few blocks away from my college campus was a hipster cinephile’s paradise: the uptown branch of Kim’s Video. I worshiped and mocked this haven for high- and low-brow art, in which Bergman and Renoir comfortably cohabitated with obscure kung fu titles and exploitation splatter-fests. Some, but not all, of the library was sorted by director, and, though I risk dating myself, this is before everyone (fine, anyone) had an iPhone. To find a movie, customers usually needed to consult a clerk, who, more often than not, was stationed behind an elevated front desk. So, when I recall asking a Kim’s Video employee where I could find a copy of The Notebook, I can attest to him looking down at me, both literally and figuratively.


    I persist. “It’s with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams?”

    “We don’t have it.”

    I commit to the bit. “The director is Nick Cassavetes?”

    “We don’t carry that.”

    It was an epic stand-off: him, a champion of niche film art, and me, a Bridge and Tunnel coed hunting down a familiar favorite. How could I have foreseen our initial dislike blossoming into a tempestuous affair built to last? (This didn’t happen.) Our love would span the ages. (I’m committing to the bit.) We named our children Noah and Allie. (Comedy comes in threes.)

    My friend and I went back to our dorm to not watch The Notebook. Later, I would borrow many of the innovative and experimental films from Kim’s, some of which were recommended by the store’s informed and—truly—lovely employees. But with the advent of streaming, it became easier to return to The Notebook on the sly, or, in the case of this essay, with much fanfare.


    I’ve been waiting to outgrow The Notebook far longer than the seven years that Allie waited for Noah.

    “It wasn’t over,” Noah growls before their epic, award-winning kiss. “It still isn’t over.”

    This movie picked me out of a crowd 19 years ago. For me, it will never be over.

    Annie Berke
    Annie Berke
    Annie Berke is the Film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, a host for the New Books in Film podcast, and a freelance writer with credits in The Washington Post, Jacobin, Public Books, and Ms. Her book, Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television, came out in January 2022 from the University of California Press.

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