By Michael Phillips 2014-01-31

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Newspapers Critic

2 1/2 stars

Two new products -- and that's what they are -- at the movies this week present packages of nearly identical quality (eh), transcended by their respective top-billed stars who happen also to be excellent, crud-elevating actors. This is an excellent skill to hone if you're both an actor and a star, because a significant portion of most careers is spent elevating crud.

But "The Vow"is agreeable enough. It may be puddin'-headed but it's not soul-crushing. Thirty minutes into the picture, directed with sincere devotion to the concept of true love by Michael Sucsy (HBO's "Grey Gardens"), the largely female audience was audibly, collectively sighing "awwwwwww!" each time the ardent hunk played by Channing Tatum did something romantic, such as arranging the blueberries on his sweetheart's breakfast plate to read MOVE IN? The crowd came out of "The Vow" positively awwww-struck.

Well. At least it has Rachel McAdams. In this Chicago-set romance -- based a wee bit on a true story and written by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Jason Katims -- the formidably skilled and charming alum of "The Notebook" and "The Time Traveler's Wife" plays a newly married School of the Art Institute student and sculptor whose husband, Leo (Tatum), runs a fledgling recording studio. In the dreamiest, least painful slow-motion depiction possible, McAdams' Paige is sent flying through a car windshield after their car gets rear-ended in a snowstorm.

A "moment of impact," we're told by narrator Leo, who favors that metaphor throughout and isn't afraid to state the obvious. ("Each one of us is the sum total of every moment we've ever experienced," he says at another juncture. Yes, and by the way, water is wet and the sun is hot.)

Paige survives but a traumatic brain injury leaves her with clear memories of most of her life -- except the last five years, beginning with the point at which she mysteriously broke ties with her snooty, controlling Lake Forest parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange, both acting as if they'd just buried several bodies in the back yard) and moved into the city to follow her bohemian dreams. Paige retains no recall of meeting or marrying Leo.

Tatum on the other hand acts as if he has no memory of learning his lines. He seems perpetually short of breath in "The Vow," while moving his lips so little when uttering banalities, he might be studying ventriloquism. None of this will matter to those who find Tatum dreamy, of course, and his occasional shirtlessness and pantslessness may well pass for romantic chemistry with McAdams' addled character. But so far, while he's gotten by in supporting roles in "The Dilemma" and, more recently, "Haywire," I don't think he's quite ready for starring roles. McAdams by contrast knows exactly how to play every scene, true or false. She's one of the most active on-screen listeners (without being a scene hog) in contemporary movies, and it's amazing what that does to make an audience believe in any number of gauzy improbabilities.

The hook in "The Vow" is enticing: How might you go about courting your spouse again if your spouse doesn't know you anymore? The script comes from a real-life incident involving a small-town New Mexico couple, Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, whose 1993 car accident provided the story inspiration. Interestingly, in a recent interview with the Farmington, N.M., Daily Times, Krickitt Carpenter had this to say about her own situation: "I would love to say that I fell in love with him again because that's what everybody wants to hear. I chose to love him and that was based on obedience to God, not feelings." Yikes. Rewrite! Needless to say, the feelings part is well looked after in "The Vow."

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for an accident scene, sexual content, partial nudity and some language).

Running time: 1:44.

Cast: Rachel McAdams (Paige); Channing Tatum (Leo); Jessica Lange (Rita); Sam Neill (Bill).

Credits: Directed by Michael Sucsy; written by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Jason Katims; produced by Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman and Paul Taublieb. A Sony Pictures release.

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