Blissfully free of nuance, depth and originality, chock full of sap and cliche, Dear John is an escapist-fantasy romance aimed at big, easy targets. That said, it’s also a competently made and acted weeper that nails each of those targets with Cupid’s laser-guided precision.
[The following is a REPRINT of the redblog review of Dear John on its theatrical release. Dear John is now on DVD and available for rental from redbox.]
I’ve always said that one of the things I look for in a film is how well it fulfills its intended purpose, however lofty (or not) that may be. I put that theory to the test with Dear John, the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novel. Because while it’s a type of film I have zero personal interest in, it’s also a decently crafted entry in its genre. In other words, let me repeat my usual Zen mantra: If you like this sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing you’ll like.
The story is typical Sparks: Boy and girl from opposite sides of the social-economic tracks meet cute; fall instantly, deeply in love; walk on the beach; ride horses; look at the moon; and make sweet love in a rustic, romantic site. They write lots of letters—the old-fashioned kind, with stamps and envelopes. They are beautiful and noble and caring, and they have all their important kisses in a warm Southern rain. But then forces beyond their control begin to pull them apart…
In this case the boy is John played by the walking, brooding slab of lumber that is Channing Tatum (GI Joe). It’s 2001 and John is an Army Special Forces sergeant on leave in his hometown on the lovely Carolina coast. The girl is Savannah, a college girl spending spring break at her parents’ beach house. She’s played by the almost comically radiant Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!, Letters to Juliet).
Their insta-love is perfect, tasteful, even relatively chaste. John is all strong, silent, and often shirtless—he can even make fire without matches! (If only an elk would saunter by so he could slay it to put food on his fair lady’s table.) Oh sure, he has his flaws, but they’re the kind of flaws that make him even more attractive—John has a temper, but it’s the kind where he angrily defends his loved ones, not smack them around when they don’t listen.
And Savannah is a portrait of sandy blond sainthood, her big eyes all wide and earnest as she helps build homes for the homeless and makes plans to care for autistic children. Like beauty pageant contestants and political candidates, if she has a fault, it’s that she cares too much.
But then along comes 9-11 to ruin everything. (Stupid terrorists.) John re-ups in the Army, but luckily it appears to be the one that gives candy to children in far-off lands, and not the one where people get horrifically blown up. Even when soldiers do get shot in Dear John it’s the good kind of shot—where they have neat, bloodless bullet holes and heal up just fine by the next scene. But while John’s overseas, well… not to give anything away, but I mean, come on… the title of the film, right?
So there is sadness—the noble kind that enriches through the pain. And there are more obstacles. In fact, there’s a sense that all the world and its people exist only to act as props to get in the way of John and Savannah’s love, but only so that love can grow stronger in the face of opposition. In one such case, it’s almost offensive how a secondary character’s life tragedy and suffering exists purely as a plot device paving the way to the main lovers’ happiness.
I’m getting my snarky jollies here mocking the formulaic, sentimental clap-trap Dear John ladles out, but I meant what I said earlier: This is for the most part very solidly made formulaic, sentimental clap-trap. Director Lasse Hallstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale) is a decent light-touch sculptor of this stuff and smoothly shapes Dear John into something much less painful than it could have been.
The cause is helped along by most of the cast. I cannot for the life of me understand the recent rise of not one, but two young male leads with all the charisma and appeal of tepid bags of beef stew. Channing Tatum may be handsome, stoic and square-cut in all the right places, but he has all the screen presence of a chest of drawers. He makes Sam Worthington look like Al Pacino on an espresso bender. However, all that works for playing the stoic John, or at least it does no harm.
Seyfried on the other hand should continue to see her star rise. Between this and Letters to Juliet, she’s racked up two solid mainstream efforts already this year–both of them fairly rote affairs lifted in part by Seyfried’s presence. And while she may be in danger of becoming the go-to-girl for movies about letter-writing, both Jennifer’s Body last fall and Chloe this spring let Seyfried show off different chops.
Henry Thomas plays a childhood friend of Savannah’s, but of course because he’s intriguing and complicated he serves no purpose in a Sparks story other than to help jerk more tears from the leads’ love story. Likewise, the great character actor Richard Jenkins plays John’s odd, coin-collecting father as a fully fleshed out complex human being—a much more compelling character than the script has a use for. (Oh yes, there is the coin collecting metaphor, presented at every turn with the subtly of bag-of-quarters beatdown.)
If you’re looking for a film that gets at honest, realistic adult emotions and interpersonal difficulties, keep moving along (perhaps over to The Messenger or Brothers). But if you want to moon over attractive actors, swoon for soft-core Harlequin romance moments, and weep over the ennobling sadness of it all, then this is the escapist fantasy for you. Dear John may be shallow, manipulative goop, but the ingredients mesh nicely in their own obvious way (Seyfried and Jenkins wear especially warmer on a second viewing) and Hallstrom serves it up with a certain amount of soft-headed, big-hearted and mostly tolerable grace. Or to put it another way, I like it well enough despite it being the kind of movie I don’t like.