Imagine waking up tomorrow in a hospital bed, unsure of how you got there. As you look up around the room, you notice several unfamiliar faces that are looking empathetically at you. In the midst of your aching head and confusion, one of those persons says they're your spouse. But you don’t recognize them, and you have no idea how you got there. You just want to go back to your life as you know it and wake up from this bizarre dream.
Suppose in that old familiar life you were already engaged or even married to someone else. Suppose you had a career in law but in your newly awoken life you were a renowned visual artist. The amount of disorientation – a rebirth and change in your life that was unforeseen and now unrecognizable – would be staggering. Yet, it would be true.
That’s the basic set up of “The Vow,” where Rachel McAdams is the car crash victim who has head trauma that manages to erase several formative years of her adult life. Elements of her family history, love life, and career get erased. The story especially works on the strength of what the 20’s are as a stage of development. The early 20’s are generally a time of going from uncertainty and dreaming to actualizing those dreams and cementing them in a career or owning ones purpose in life. Major life questions begin to get answered like; who do I want to spend my life with, what do I want to spend my life doing, and how do I grow into an independent adult? Only in this case, imagine having no say or recollection of how you grew and what you learned about yourself – you just woke and were there.
“The Vow” focuses on the marriage and relationship between Leo and Paige (Played by Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams). The movie spends its time asking some great questions: What if you had to woo your spouse all over again? Would you do it? How? Could you do it? Implicit in this question is a central truth about marriage, which is that the wooing doesn’t stop at the altar. Rather, the wooing keeps going all marriage long. You commit to loving one another based on the relationship, not based on the feelings alone. It is challenging and difficult, and any marriage can be faced with any degree of hardships and struggle.
The film is inspired by the lives of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, a real life couple who wrote a book about their experience where Krickitt woke up from a severe accident and didn’t recognize the man calling her his wife. In the real story, the couple cites their faith in God as a major reason for their ability to overcome their circumstances. In the film, this is mentioned nowhere, which for some viewers will be disheartening. In fact, the film is careful to tell us that it is “inspired by” not “based on” true events. The Carpenter’s lives were not utilized as a blueprint for the script (The screenwriters informed us at a press event that only a month or two before the film released did they learn that the Carpenters wrote a book about their true experience).
The story plays out like something of a mash up between “Memento” and “The Notebook.” We learn about the couple’s history for the first time as Paige does, leading to some shocking revelations about her family history and an interesting reason to be compelled to the plot's changes. But it plays like other familiar love stories in its style and tone. Two of the prettiest actors were chosen as the leads, and the surrounding cast looks like they were plucked from a modeling agency.
The film certainly tries to fight this stereotype. The soundtrack is laden with indie rock superstars like The National and Lykke Li, McAdams character has a hipster haircut (which is a very obvious and silly looking wig) to show her “artsy” side, and Tatum’s character owns a recording studio where he produces indie rock bands in the heart of Chicago. Therein lies the films greatest frustration, which is Channing Tatum himself. He is not a strong actor, and in this film there are a few moments where he seems to struggle (such as when he nearly breaks a stereo because he is angry). In addition, it is really hard for me to buy into him being a hip music producer. Channing is too “pretty” to look like a guy who spends his time in cowboy boots and skinny jeans while going through 80 cartons of cigarettes telling bands to run one more take of a song. Also, the film features requisite bare butt and shirtless moments of Channing that I’m sure the ladies will see as a treat. I thought it might be humorous if Jack Black was in the lead role instead. At least he knows music.
Also problematic is McAdams road to recovery. We see the accident scene (which is brilliantly done visually and aurally) and then McAdams is in the hospital. However, after what appears to be a few days her scars are basically gone. In spite of having major head trauma, she still has all her hair and goes through almost no physical therapy on the road to a remarkable recovery. I recognize my bias – my Mom was nearly killed in a car accident where there was major head trauma over 10 years ago. To this day she still has the physical affects of the accident plaguing her life. I get why it is for film and story sake – the film is about the questions the couple faces emotionally and relationally, not the reality of the accident’s physical effects. Still, it was notably distracting.
Overall, "The Vow" is a good love story that finds its strength based on its premise. I wasn't sure I'd like the film at all. I was prepared to mock it, but I came away pleasantly surprised. In my eyes, the questions are so good that the film really can’t lose. It’s confidently directed, looks good, and is acted well enough. I went in expecting “The Notebook” all over again (which also shares amnesia in its plot), and to some degree it feels really similar. But to another degree, “The Vow” has better questions at its core: Does your vow to love your spouse for better or for worse really hold true? How do you continue to love your spouse even after the big day? They are questions that challenge us even when trauma does not play a role in our married and romantic lives. I left the film thinking about what I could do to show my wife I loved her. I really can't fault any film that provokes that sort of response from me.
Check out our interview with the cast and filmmakers of "The Vow" for more on the story and the experience making the film: