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The Vow (2012)

Swearing Up a Storm

Like millions of other men, I was dragged to the cineplex last weekend to see 2012's big Valentine's Day release, The Vow. But I may have been the one guy in America who actually enjoyed it. Let me be clear: just about everything in this movie is either terrible or tainted by terribleness. But the few good parts mix with a treasure trove of hilarious nonsense to create a minor, under-the-radar success.

I'd like to dive in with a confession: my ability to accurately judge this film may be impaired by its having been filmed on Chicago's North Side. Until recently, I lived in or around some of the neighborhoods featured here, and they've never looked better than in the hands of cinematographer Rogier Stoffers. This seems like a silly pass to give a movie, but I stand by it; when faced with two hours of utter boredom, there's no such thing as a bad distraction.

The Vow opens with a young, attractive couple named Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum) coming out of a late-night movie. While driving home, Paige unbuckles her seatbelt to give Leo a kiss at a stop sign. Suddenly, a snow plow rear-ends their car, sending Paige through the windshield and into a coma.

Days later, she wakes up with severe memory loss. In her mind, she's no longer the carefree, successful artist who moved to the big city five years ago; she's the buttoned-up law student with a stuffy-yet-dashing fiancé named Jeremy (Scott Speedman) and wealthy parents who neither approve of nor understand the arts. This presents a unique problem for Leo, considering Paige's falling out with her parents half a decade earlier was so severe that he'd never actually met her family. Soon, he's awkwardly hobnobbing with elites who don't know what to make of his "job" as head of an upstart recording studio.

As Paige grows closer to her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) and sister (Jessica McNamee), Leo has to work harder to convince her that they belong together in their new life. This struggle makes up most of The Vow, and is hindered by two big problems.

First, Leo is a meat-head. Yes, my anti-Channing Tatum prejudice is rearing its ugly head, but the beef is legitimate. On Paige's first night home from the hospital, Leo throws a huge surprise party for her, not thinking for a second how frightening it would be to walk into a room packed with needy, questioning strangers. There are other examples of him not thinking straight, but that's the most egregious.

About Tatum: he's got a terrific, leading-man look that is shattered whenever he speaks. His delivery is often stilted and unconfident, as if his brain is constipated and words are sharts weakly dribbling from his mouth. The Vow has a handful of scenes where the actor is more relaxed, approaching naturalism.** But he was obviously cast as candy, evidenced by the fact that eight of the ten pictures Paige digs up from their relationship feature her husband shirtless or nearly so.

The second problem is Paige's unbelievable transformation. I'm not talking about the post-accident brain trauma; I mean the event from five years earlier that transformed her from Suburban Law Student Barbie into a funky, urban, vegetarian sculptor. I'm not saying this couldn't happen, but what I know of the often Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the sensibilities and gifts of lawyers and artists forces me to call "bullshit" on this whole story.

Even if Paige did give up everything and turn her back on all that her parents value, asking us to believe that she discovered a heretofore latent ability so amazing that she gets grants from the Chicago Tribune and can make enough from her art to afford both a huge apartment and gargantuan studio space is, frankly, insulting. Maybe if the five (!) credited writers had taken the time to explain this miraculous about-face, I could have bought into it. But, no, we just have to accept this as a way of life in Fairy Tale Windy City.

But these arguments miss the point, don't they? The Vow isn't a movie for the head, it's a movie for the heart--more accurately, the loins. What girl wouldn't want a semi-nude, moonlight romp on the beach with Channing Tatum? What guy wouldn't love a spin on the pottery wheel with Rachel McAdams?

This is pure, unabashed relationship porn, a fantasy meant to be enjoyed in the unique solitude of movie-watching with a significant other. If a man can withstand the wilting notion that he may not be the star of his beloved's imagination during the (hopefully) inevitable post-film sex, and if a woman can still get an appropriate tingle on for her reluctant shlub of a mate--who thinks taking them to see The Vow guarantees post-film sex--then the movie has done its job.***

Like The Notebook, The Vow uses the metaphor of memory loss to speak to countless spouses who feel the magic has gone out of their relationships. Both films see epically romantic journeys into the past as keys to conquering sadness in the present; the not-so-subtle message being that, over time, husbands/boyfriends inevitably forget how to appreciate their wives/girlfriends. This can be a very real problem, and a great subject for a film. But by burying the theme in a bizarre salt-truck-accident contrivance, the filmmakers make their grander points eye-rollingly corny instead of profound.

But, as I said earlier, I really enjoyed The Vow. It's appropriately soapy, goofy, and weepy. I love Leo and Paige's ridiculous hipster friends, who all look forty yet dress like they're eighteen. I love Speedman's turn as the asshole ex-boyfriend and Neill as the asshole current dad. And despite Tatum's wretched Tatum-ness, he gave me permission to not take anything on the screen seriously (had Ryan Gosling or other age-appropriate and suitably amazing actor taken the role, I'm sure this review would have read a lot differently). The Vow is cozy, hilarious, utterly lacking in logic, and, at times, an embarrassing test of will. In short, it is love.

*The Vow opens with a a cool downward shot of the Music Box Theatre, in which I was almost married.

**Bizarrely, Tatum's dialogue is belied by his inner monologue, whose insight and thoughtful cadence offer a knee-slapping contrast to the marble-mouthed mumbling he shares with the rest of the world.

***To my LGBT friends, feel free to mentally switch whatever roles are necessary to make this scenario work for you.