Dear John (United States, 2010)February 05, 2010
Dear John delivers pretty much what one would expect from an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel: a high-profile downer of a Harlequin romance. There's a market for this sort of movie, which lays it on thick and does everything possible to make sure tears are shed at some point. Sparks' novels include two key elements: romance and tragedy, and both are in place in Dear John. However, perhaps because director Lasse Hallström shows a degree of restraint when dishing out the melodrama or perhaps because the source material isn't as mawkish as some of Sparks' other efforts, this isn't a Kleenex bonanza. A single tissue will be enough. (Some might prefer a barf bag.) The movie is not undone by unsophisticated tear-jerking and overly-sappy bodice busting but by an uneven flow and an awkwardness resulting from the ineffective translation of a literary device to the screen.
Dear John begins in solid but unspectacular fashion with the development of a romance between army Special Forces soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried). It's March 2001 and she's home in South Carolina for Spring Break while he's on a short leave. Their chemistry is immediate and a chance encounter turns into a two week whirlwind romance. By the time it ends, they have made promises and confessions of love and are determined to continue the relationship via letters until John's tour of duty ends.
The film's middle act struggles with ways to dramatize the lengthy and frequent correspondence between John and Savannah, and largely fails in those attempts. We are provided with numerous shots of the characters writing and reading letters. Voiceovers provide snippets of the content and cheesy music frequently intrudes. It's a relief when John and Savannah have an opportunity to meet face-to-face in the midst of all this since it interrupts the monotony of plot advancement by cursive script. Unfortunately, it's back to letters after the 24-hour interlude in which John makes a dramatic enlistment: in the wake of 9/11, he intends to re-enlist. After that, Dear John loses its focus. The screenplay seems unsure where to take the story. The romance is reduced to a bittersweet afterthought as the movie concentrates on John's experiences in Afghanistan and his relationship with his quiet numismatist father (Richard Jenkins), who has a compulsion about baking lasagna on Sundays. The ending, while potentially hopeful, is not fully satisfying. It wants us to leave the theater expelling wistful sighs.
There is nothing in Channing Tatum's past body of work to indicate he is able to handle purely dramatic roles. His biggest part to-date, as the lead in G.I. Joe, highlights his physical capabilities but leaves the viewer uneducated regarding his acting. It comes as a pleasant surprise that playing John does not overtax his abilities. His performance is competent although not superlative. If there are times when Tatum's depth is lacking, those are counterbalanced by the complete absence of cringe-inducing moments. Amanda Seyfried, who has less screen time than one might hope, meets expectations developed as a result of her participation in the HBO TV series, Big Love, and her revealing portrayal in Atom Egoyan's upcoming Chloe. Veteran character actor Richard Jenkins is a little disappointing; his interpretation of a high functioning autistic borders on a caricature, but that's probably principally the fault of the writing.
The PG-13 rating disallows any of the potential sexual chemistry between the leads to percolate on screen. When they finally get around to having sex, it is tasteful, with arms placed to obscure breasts and close-ups of lips mashing together. It would be a stretch to call the obligatory sequence erotic or emotionally fulfilling; the movie would have benefitted from its exclusion. There are ways to imply sex without going through a neutered depiction of it. The scene adds nothing except horrible music and a sense that maybe the movie really should have been R-rated.
At one time, Hallström was a highly respected director, having made the foreign language favorite, My Life as a Dog, and the Best Picture Oscar nominee, The Cider House Rules. Lately, however, he has become one of Hollywood's go-to directors when the material is soft and sentimental. The director's recent resume has been less-than-impressive. As far as the material goes, Dear John is on par with most of the other Sparks adaptations. They are watchable but have little artistic merit - the cinematic equivalent, I suppose, of a "beach novel." Like A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, and The Notebook, the appeal is there for those who crave formulaic romantic drama, but there's little of interest for a wider audience.
Dear John (United States, 2010)
Cast: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas
Screenplay: Jamie Linden, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks
Cinematography: Terry Stacey
Music: Deborah Lurie
U.S. Distributor: Screen Gems