Garner plays Duke, reading to an Alzheimer's patient (Rowlands) about two young lovers in the '40s. Those lovers are Noah Calhoun (Gosling) and Allie Hamilton (McAdams), a gregarious mill worker and Southern rich girl whom the world will try its best to keep apart. While Allie's wealthy father (David Thornton) observes their summer romance with a certain level of bemusement, Allie's mother (Joan Allen) is diametrically opposed to the idea of her well-to-do daughter ending up in the arms of a guy making 40 cents an hour. On the other side, Noah's approving pop (a crusty Sam Shepard) likes to make pancakes for the couple in the middle of the night.
Gosling, who has played a number of disturbed and evil characters in recent years (Murder by Numbers, The Believer), gets a chance to show his softer side. He does this while maintaining a suitable level of mischief and rawness in his work. To his credit, he creates quite the viable character in Noah, a man who is almost serially possessed with the notion of spending his life with Allie, even when the odds against them are enormous. When she disappears from his life, he becomes somewhat of an insane man, rebuilding a dilapidated house with the hope that it will somehow bring his lost love back.
McAdams, best known for her evil turns in Mean Girls and The Hot Chick, will probably be one of Hollywood's hottest actresses after this film. Simply put, she does everything right with the role of Allie, creating a character of great impact and complexity while avoiding the pitfalls of romantic stereotypes. Allie is a conflicted character faced with hard choices. The film provides her with another suitor (a likeable James Marsden), a good man who makes Allie's eventual decisions all the more difficult. McAdams makes Allie's struggle something of great depth, rather than the stuff of shallow romance novels.
The modern-day acquaintance depicted by Garner and Rowlands has its own great rewards, and the two do some truly astounding work worthy of their great careers. As the film goes on, some mysteries are revealed with rather obvious answers, yet director Nick Cassavetes (Rowland's son) and cast make the proceedings not only suspenseful in a strange way, but something well worth investing the viewer's time and emotions.
The film has a few flaws, such as World War II being depicted in a quickie battle scene that claims the life of a main character, a death the film never acknowledges in the aftermath. The flaws are more than balanced out by moments of great humor (this film has one of the funnier sex scenes of recent memory) and heart.
If syrupy, saccharine-sweet romances tend to make you sick, then don't worry about this one. This is a love story with a major dab of harsh reality, and the tears that it induces are well-earned. In a matter of two hours, the film manages to depict the tremendous worth of a true love and the devastating tragedy that is the loss of one's identity and memory. This is that rare romance in which love isn't simply a gimmick to move the plot along. In The Notebook, love is treated with the greatest respect and honesty, resulting in a movie to be cherished.