Cryin' time: Notebook brings out the hankies

I've got to get in touch with my feminine side for this one because we "real men" don't like romantic tearjerkers– unless there's a football involved.

The Notebook could be one of those classic American screen romances that resonate with viewers, if not always with critics. It belongs up there with An Affair to Remember, The Way We Were, An Officer and a Gentleman, Love Story, and Sleepless in Seattle, if not Casablanca and Gone with the Wind.

 If nothing else, it brings new meaning to the idea that you never forget your first love.

The Notebook unfolds in two periods, more than half a century apart. The connection isn't made clear until more than an hour into the film, but it's probably not much of a spoiler to give it away. If you still want to avoid it, I'll tell you when to stop reading.

James Garner is introduced as "Duke." He's living in a nursing home and is preparing for a "big day." He dresses up and goes calling on an old woman (Gena Rowlands) who doesn't know him from Adam.

He's there to read to her, he says, and he reads a love story from an old notebook. We see it as flashbacks that make up the bulk of the picture, beginning on June 6, 1940, when Noah (Ryan Gosling) meets Allie (Rachel McAdams) and falls in love with her at first sight.

He's a country boy, she's a city (Charleston, S.C.) girl; but more importantly, he doesn't have two dimes to rub together and she comes from a long line of dime-rubbers.

Noah's not stupid– he likes poetry, especially Walt Whitman– but he works in a lumberyard and has none of what the rich call "prospects." Allie is starting at Sarah Lawrence College in the fall.

Director Nick Cassavetes doesn't rush it. In an unfashionable (but most welcome) pre-MTV manner he lets their love develop slowly, sometimes in conversations that go on for minutes. Allie meets Noah's father (Sam Shepard) but puts off introducing Noah to her parents (Joan Allen, David Thornton with a strange, unreal-looking mustache) as long as she can. Though he's totally endearing, they see only a lack of dollar signs when they look at him.

The summer romance ends abruptly when Allie's parents take her away. Noah writes every day for a year, but Allie's mother intercepts his letters. Years pass: the war years. Noah survives and realizes his dream of acquiring and restoring an old plantation house.

The next time he sees Allie, she's engaged to Lon Hammond (James Marsden) of Hammond Cotton, a man her parents approve of and even she can find no fault with.

This is where you stop reading if you don't want to know how the past and present link up.

Before "Duke" finishes the story we spend more time with him and the older Allie and learn she's suffering from senile dementia (possibly Alzheimer's, but that's not specified). He goes through this whole process in hopes of stimulating her memory to give her a few lucid moments.

The film toys with a couple of possible endings before getting to the right one; but it's from New Line Cinema, distributor of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the ultimate "But wait– there's more!" movie.

The screenplay, adapted by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi from a novel by Nicholas Sparks (it's hard to believe there was no female input in the process), makes some arguable choices about what to reveal and when, and there's some questionable math when Allie tells Noah she waited "seven years" for him.

But the classic glitch in The Notebook is an outdoor scene on a hot August night in South Carolina where you can see the actors' breath as they talk! And this is 1940, the day before yesterday, not The Day after Tomorrow.

It's sad that a woman of Rowlands' brilliance has to give birth to the director to get a role like this, but she and Garner should be in the running for Oscars next year.

If you're shy about showing emotion in public, you'll want to wait for the DVD of The Notebook, but make sure you've got a big screen to appreciate the gorgeous cinematography. Whenever, wherever you see it, be certain to have a large box of industrial-strength tissue on hand. I'm still choking up thinking about it 24 hours later.