** (out of four)
Channing Tatum gets a bad rap, but the failings of “The Vow” lie primarily on his (often-bare) shoulders.
The Chicago-set story, inspired by true events but told like an ordinary, contrived slice of soap, brings an ocean of sorrow: Paige (Rachel McAdams) wakes up, following a brain injury-causing car accident and coma, with no memory of her husband Leo (Tatum). While she retreats to her parents (Sam Neill, Jessica Lange) and ex-fiance (Scott Speedman) and other people she does remember, Leo’s tasked with the challenge of making his better half see him as more than a stranger, and then as her love again. Yes, that should remind you of “50 First Dates,” and yes, that should tug at your heart anyway.
So the carpet is pretty much yanked out from underneath “The Vow” as Tatum—hilarious in “The Dilemma,” good enough in the underrated “Dear John” and as funny as a poorly written “Saturday Night Live” episode allowed him to be—refuses to credibly emote like someone whose spouse no longer recognizes any of what they share. Of course, Leo’s grateful that Paige is alive and able to walk and talk. But his world should be shattered. During moments that should sting, Tatum looks neither crushed nor numb. Just flat. And certainly not filled with the wounded but resilient determination of a guy who earlier in the movie belts out Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” as if he means it, sans parenthetical.
Much of “The Vow” sticks to the surface, particularly Paige’s rich, snooty, Lake Forest-dwelling parents and their annoyingly devious scheme to put Paige’s life back on its previous track, before she stopped speaking to them for years. McAdams, however, acquits herself well to a challenging role. Paige transforms from a creative, glowing newlywed to someone confused, lonely and lost. Like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “The Lookout,” McAdams communicates the alienating, post-brain injury frustration of searching for something upstairs behind a door that refuses to be unlocked.
Perhaps co-writer Jason Katims’ (“Friday Night Lights”) stamp can be seen in Leo’s job owning a recording studio (Dax Shepard’s character owns a studio on the Katims-produced “Parenthood”), or in the warm, stirring moments when Paige and Leo share the giddy, effortless laughter of people carving out their own world. Mostly “The Vow” seems to owe more to co-writers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (“He’s Just Not That Into You”), who shouldn’t add so much manipulation into something tragic, and shouldn’t continually rely on Leo to tell us in voiceover about his theory regarding major moments and how they define us. No one would disagree with that, man.
P.S. If you’re wondering what Chicago spots appear in the movie, here’s a sampling:
The Art Institute
Millennium Park/The Bean
#50 Damen bus stop
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