The base feel of The Vow is that it barely ekes by, as if the movie, beset on all sides by the inequities of the studio that was footing its bill, fought hard and unselfishly to preserve the tiniest bit of its intended integrity. It isn’t a good movie, in the sense that even when it intends to show a bit of the real substance of a working relationship, it winds up incredibly simplistic. But at least it tries, which is a little bit more than most movies that would be lumped into its genre can say.
When it’s not trying to be particularly good, which is most of the time, it’s plain sap, and it has enough of that to satisfy the most ardent Nicholas Sparks fan (Sparks being a kind of patron saint of this kind of movie; star Channing Tatum even being a vet of the Sparks genre). But at the same time, it’s a shame to place The Vow in the ignominious company of Dear John or anything starring Drew Barrymore. It contains a few key scenes to keep people from walking out in disgust, but they’re scenes that feel like leftovers from a sincere script that existed before dollar-sign-seeing executives ripped it apart word for word.
The idea is that young, hip, impossibly-in-love newlyweds wind up in the ER after their car is plowed into by a truck. Husband Leo (Tatum) was wearing his seatbelt and quickly recovers, but wife Paige (Rachel McAdams) had taken hers off and is left in a deep coma. Leo waits by her bed with an aching heart, ignoring every responsibility in his life, but when she comes out of it, brain trauma has erased every memory of him and taken her back to the unfulfilled person she was before getting married. The majority of the movie is his attempt to see her amnesia as an opportunity to relive their happy courtship, rather than a curse that has made her forget how much she loved him.
Knowing all of this about The Vow makes it difficult to accept that there might be a few hints of honest emotion in it, or even a single scene that doesn’t deserve to be laughed at. There are, but they’re mishandled and attenuated. A story like this needs some kind of fairy tale/fantasy tone, something that makes a grand statement about the universal nature of love, its ability to persevere outside our everyday memories. Everything in The Vow is done straightforward: the memory-loss plot device is straight out of TV soap operas, but Tatum and McAdams go to the lengths of their limited acting powers to make it seem horrible and important. This means that when Paige wakes up in a hospital bed mistaking Leo for her doctor and wondering why she’s in a hospital in the first place (rather than in her parent’s mansion at the age of 25, the last place and age she can remember being), Leo’s reaction is to gently reacquaint her with their married life, rather than put her through intense therapy. To the movie’s credit, he goes about this absurd task with all the sincerity of a genuinely nice guy. To its shame, it makes the Paige who wakes up from the coma such a vapid, materialist, unloveable version of the woman Leo married that it becomes impossible to believe a good person ever existed in the first place.
It seems obvious that The Vow had its heart in the right place at one time, that it’s based on the impulse to capture a real relationship. The sad thing about it isn’t that it devolved into such a simplistic romance movie, but rather that it’s very easy to understand how and why it did.