The Vow is a conventional love story with a ghostly chasm in the middle, a weepie for Valentine’s Day cinemagoers.
Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) are stepping out into a snowy Chicago one evening. They’re young, married, and in love. But the couple will pay the price that accompanies any snow-bound car trip late at night at the start of this sort of movie: when they stop to share a moment of passion, a truck rams them from behind. Paige, in excruciating slow-mo, is thrown through the windshield. When she wakes up, she can’t remember a thing about the accident. She doesn't remember her husband either.
Cue flashback to happier times. The pair meet; he brings her a gift to the café where she works, staring at her with adoring puppy-dog eyes in the pouring rain. "An individual is the sum total of every moment they ever experience," Leo narrates, in an exactingly articulate voiceover. The Vow begins like a slushy Nicholas Sparks movie, maudlin and wet. Leo must take his wife home to their Chicago apartment and get her to fall in love with him all over again. This against the wishes of her wealthy, lemon-sucking parents (Jessica Lange and a more reptilian than usual Sam Neill), who are only meeting Leo for the first time now and are more than disappointed that he owns a recording studio.
The charms of the courtship and marriage established, the film turns to what comes after the accident, namely, Leo’s discovery that his wife is reverted to what he calls her "sweater-set-wearing, mojito-drinking, sorority girl" former self, complete with a former fiancé (Scott Speedman) she doesn't remember leaving. The Vow is "inspired by" a true story, which doesn’t mean much; still, it's less superficial than most of its rom-com brethren. It doesn’t cut very deeply into its traumatic and painful subject matter, but director Michael Sucsy invests the scenes between the couple with warmth and awkwardness. The Vow is a conventional love story with a ghostly chasm in the middle.
It’s a little bit of a shame, then, that so much of the emotional heft hinges on Tatum. He plays inscrutable action heroes or dancers well enough, but he’s a blankly uncommunicative romantic lead. There’s something bullish and set about his face; his range seems restricted to wiggling his eyes up and down a chiseled forehead.
Luckily, McAdams doesn’t hold back; always a lovely screen presence, here she brings a commitment to Paige, suggesting that her vacant smile masks a genuine effort to sort out her confusion and frustration. If Leo’s commitment is a given -- he loves his wife and wants her back -- The Vow’s emotional center is Paige. Her doctor helpfully diagnoses that she's avoiding the trauma and might be better off if she recalled her more recent life; we agree, of course, because her previous self is a shallow materialist. The screenplay flounders with her.
If it’s a foregone conclusion that Paige will somehow find herself again, the film resists a formulaic route to it and includes nice cinematography of Chicago landmarks (the Art Institute, the Cloud Gate) as well as a few of its famously wintry streets. The use of the Cure’s "Pictures of You" as a key musical cue is inspired too. If the split between the New Paige and the Old Paige is simplistic, The Vow uses it to suggest the complications of relationships over time.