Perfect couples. Everybody wants to be in one, but no one really enjoys being the third wheel who observes their bliss from a gum-encrusted theater seat. Which is why it’s imperative for Hollywood to make them unhappy.
The married hero and heroine of this year’s Valentine’s-week date movie, The Vow, approach levels of perfect coupledom seldom seen since 1990’s Ghost. Leo (Channing Tatum) owns a recording studio, looks like a male model and gives adorable gifts. Paige (Rachel McAdams) makes giant commissioned sculptures, dresses retro and has Zooey Deschanel’s hair. They share a gorgeous loft, and both are prone to charming spontaneous gestures, such as jumping in cold lakes. Their friends wear flannel and fedoras. They got hitched at the Art Institute.
So, of course, to make these people bearable, tragedy must strike. A car accident leaves Paige with no memory of Leo. Even worse, the amnesia has regressed her to an earlier stage in her life when everything that seems cool to her now seemed uncool. “What’s wrong with my hair?” she whines virtually upon waking.
Soon we (and Leo) learn that the younger Paige was a smooth-haired, preppy law student with two upper-class gorgons for parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), a conservative wardrobe and a smarmy corporate fiancé (Scott Speedman). Now the stuffy world of the 1 percent wants her back. How can a soulful hipster with a propensity for whipping off his shirt compete with that?
The Vow is every bit as silly as this synopsis makes it sound. Yet, as films about perfect pairs overcoming adversity go, it’s a pretty pain-free experience. Partly that’s because Hollywood’s efforts to depict arty urban types are always worth a few giggles. Director Michael Sucsy (HBO’s Grey Gardens) finds visual interest in the funky Chicago milieu that’s missing from your standard romantic flick about rich white people in suburbia. And McAdams makes Paige’s bewilderment as cute and funny as brain injury can be, though her radical personality shift (sans other symptoms) seems a bit dramatically convenient.
A romance about amnesia could have plumbed questions about what it means to “be oneself” and love someone, but for that, you’ll need to read Oliver Sacks. The message of The Vow is that love eventually conquers all when your lover is Channing Tatum. It’s been designed as a female fantasy, a delivery system for bare pecs and caring glances. (At the showing I caught, when Leo consoled himself over Paige’s absence by cradling a kitty on his bare chest, the audience couldn’t restrain its Awwws.)
The part of Leo actually reads more like it was written for a sweet-but-nerdy type like the young John Cusack or Joseph Gordon-Levitt. When Paige’s shallow sister regards him with disdain, it’s not clear why she isn’t going Awww instead, or at least congratulating her sister on netting a guy who looks like he could play G.I. Joe. To Tatum’s credit, he does his best to inhabit this more cerebral role, and his floundering efforts — like Leo’s attempts to reawaken Paige’s love — are endearing.
The fantasy that a man like that would do all this for you sells the movie to its target audience. But if you’re interested in a deeper exploration of what makes or breaks a perfect couple, forget about it.