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Empty ‘Notebook’ only holds clichés

Nick Cassevetes' film is based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. By John Hartl

The late John Cassavetes was one of a handful of filmmakers so versatile and gifted that he earned Oscar nominations for writing, acting and directing. His legacy as an independent, original artist should be honored.

But what would he make of “The Notebook,” the latest film directed by his son, Nick, and featuring Gena Rowlands, Nick’s mother and John’s widow? It can’t be true that they deliberately set out to make a cliché-stuffed tearjerker that fails on every level, yet that’s precisely what they’ve accomplished.

Perhaps we should consider — and blame — the source: a novel by Nicholas Sparks, whose lugubrious best-sellers have also embarrassed Kevin Costner and Paul Newman, who co-starred in the dreadful film of Sparks’ “Message in a Bottle,” and Daryl Hannah, who turned up in the only slightly less dreadful adaptation of  Sparks’ “A Walk to Remember.”

“The Notebook,” adapted by screenwriter Jeremy Leven, is simply more of the same. The storyline is vaguely similar to William Inge’s script for 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass”: two teenagers fall in love, alarmed parents separate them, the boy leaves town, the girl finds another lover, and so does he. Their adolescent passion is compromised as they become adults and take different paths.

But the conviction that suffuses “Splendor in the Grass” is missing, and so is the bittersweet ending. Dishonesty and melodrama reign. Leven’s script even relies on such Victorian whoppers as the one about the mother who sifts through her child’s mail, eliminating her lover’s letters and preventing her daughter from realizing his almost saintly devotion.

Indeed, he writes one letter for every day of the first year of their separation, and mom hides all 365 of them. When the daughter discovers this subterfuge, does she excommunicate mom for life? Is she even angry? For a minute, maybe. The plot is already headed in another direction and can’t be bothered with registering believable reactions.

Nothing rings true, not Rowlands’ tortured performance as an old woman with memory problems, not James Garner’s pallid work as the aging pal who visits her in a nursing home, not even Sam Shepard’s attempt to make sense of the boy’s stoic father. Stuck with a one-dimensional role as the devious mother, Joan Allen visibly struggles.

Even Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, as the 1940s North Carolina kids whose devotion is supposed to drive the story, fail to find a connection. Gosling (“The Believer”) is one of the most talented young actors in the business, and he and McAdams do bring an undeniable enthusiasm to their scenes. But there’s so little happening between them that it hardly matters when her character becomes engaged to someone else (James Marsden, cartoonish in a thankless role).

As for the recurring Rowlands/Garner episodes, which are woven into the kids’ scenes as if they were a setup for a whodunit, it won’t take audiences long to catch on to why they’re there. Like the rest of “The Notebook,” the reason is thuddingly obvious.