If you’re going to make an unapologetically cheesy romantic melodrama, why not cast Channing Tatum as the male lead? A former model, dancer, and stripper before he transitioned into acting, Tatum has the good looks and cut-granite physique of the sort of men encountered most often in daydreams, and the puppy-dog earnestness of a boyfriend who secretly worries he isn’t worth your time. The looks come from nature. The latter quality comes from Tatum’s acting, which always seems to be striving not to disappoint. He may not be a natural actor, but he’s trying so hard, it’s kind of winning. That’s true even in a film that does him no favors, like The Vow, which casts him as a hopeless romantic whose courtship techniques include spelling out romantic messages with blueberries and giving a new girlfriend a picture of himself strumming a guitar. (Plausible.) His character is also a brilliant music producer who surrounds himself with eccentric, porkpie-hat-wearing hipster friends (less plausible), and who narrates the movie in a lyrical voiceover that philosophizes about that nature of love, memory, and fate. (Ummm…)
Still, that voiceover is just one silly element in a film that isn’t afraid to pile silliness upon silliness in telling the loosely fact-inspired story of a young couple (Tatum and Rachel McAdams) whose marriage is forced into crisis when a car accident leaves her unable to remember anything about her recent life, including falling in love and marrying Tatum. (All this in spite of the blueberries.) What’s more, she remembers being a drastically different person. A sculptor trained at Chicago’s School Of The Art Institute, the pre-trauma McAdams fits right into Tatum’s bohemian milieu, but the accident has reverted her to who she was before embarking on a career in art: a law student who lives for the approval of her conservative parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), and is still in love with a slimy ex-fiancé (Scott Speedman). As for Tatum, he seems nice enough, but he’s not really her type. Cue this line from Tatum, setting up the premise of the film: “I need to make my wife fall in love with me again.”
For a while, Tatum, McAdams, and director Michael Sucsy make the most of that sweet, dumb premise, as Tatum tries to win back the woman living under his own roof while she starts discarding her funky clothing to don polo shirts, and drifting from the photogenically gritty city to Chicago’s moneyed northern suburbs. Everyone plays it straight without taking themselves too seriously. He’s troubled but earnest. She’s confused but appealingly upbeat. Much of the action transpires against lovingly photographed Chicago landmarks. It’s unashamedly escapist, but a turn for the serious as The Vow nears the finish line only underscores its essential silliness and what a poor job the film has done making it seem like its characters need each other for reasons beyond looking good together. Their love seems based less on fate or brain chemistry than the requirements of formula.