"The Vow" may be a by-the-numbers Hollywood romance, but the filmmakers aren't afraid to take chances. In the very first shot, two deliriously happy young lovebirds – Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) – exit a movie theater. Don't give us any ideas.
Director Michael Sucsy and his four credited writers waste no time getting to the punch: As Leo and Paige drive home, they tease, they laugh, they pull over for a little fooling around ... they get rear-ended by a large truck – all in under three minutes (and much of that in ultra-slow motion). In the moments before Paige goes flying through the windshield, Leo starts philosophizing in voice-over about life's "moments of impact." It's your call whether this little attempt at cleverness is remarkably tasteless or simply nauseatingly coy.
Even after four years of teasing, laughing, and fooling around, this should stand out as a night to remember. Unfortunately, Paige doesn't remember it, or anything else from those four years. As far as she knows, she's studying law, she's engaged to a vaguely slimy attorney (Scott Speedman), and George W. Bush is still in the White House. She has no clue who Leo is – tragic to be sure, until you realize that she has been retroactively spared the financial collapse, the debt ceiling negotiations, and Rebecca Black's "Friday."
She's so uncomfortable with this hunky stranger and his claims about their marital bliss that she abandons their Chicago apartment for the Lake Forest mansion she grew up in, where Mater (Jessica Lange) and Pater (Sam Neill) while away the hours being even more unpleasant and snobbish than McAdams's parents in "Midnight in Paris."
Leo, meanwhile, hopes that flashbacks and slo-mo, ballad-backed montages will bring back the Paige who severed contact with her family, dropped law school for art school, and fell in love with him.
Amnesia has been at the center of scores of films, mostly melodramas and thrillers. But melodrama and farce are mirror images: The same plot can drive either one, depending wholly on tone. "Memento," let me introduce you to "Clean Slate"; "Spellbound," meet "Desperately Seeking Susan." The melodrama "No Man of Her Own," the thriller "I Married a Dead Man," and the farce "Mrs. Winterbourne" are all based (rather faithfully) on a single Cornell Woolrich novel.
In the thrillers, the question is most frequently "Did I lose my memory after witnessing a murder? Or after committing one?" "The Vow" has nothing so extreme, well, except for the opening Truckmageddon incident. It is purely a romance – what used to be condescendingly called "a woman's picture." That Tatum shows a lot more skin than McAdams tells you everything you need to know about the film's projected demographic.
The movie's most shocking revelation is nothing close to murder; it's that, before Leo met her, Paige used to be a complete pill. She may be edging away from Leo, but you'd think Leo would be "running" away from her instead of moping around. It's time for him to turn the Paige and move on.
The gold standard for amnesiac romances remains the 1942 "Random Harvest," in which the story mechanics are beyond preposterous: Ronald Colman's memory swings back and forth like a pendulum. "The Vow" takes place in a more realistic universe. (In fact, it claims to be based on a true story.) While the plot's logic is consistent with the sort of gentle resolution we get, the emotional logic demands something stronger. We crave the moment when Paige's memories come flooding back. To deny us that is certainly more realistic, but by the end the patient audience deserves something more than mere realism. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for an accident scene, sexual content, partial nudity, and some language.)