Love During Wartime
In a way, movies like Dear John are the most fantastical of screen romances. Only from the highest realms of implausibility could a series of events as dramatically convenient as what unfolds here originate. To be fair, this is the most grounded adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel yet, far less soapy than A Walk to Remember and, as much as I liked it, The Notebook. But instead, Dear John has swapped such melodrama for a one-way ticket to Dullsville; though not an awful film, it's one that feels bored in and of itself.
Our story begins in the spring of 2001, and John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is just another soldier enjoying his stay home on leave. But his valuable surfing time gets interrupted by a chance encounter with the lovely Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried). By the time the opening finish, the two have fallen head over heels in love and proceed to spend the next couple of weeks doing what people in Taylor Swift songs probably do. Their bond seems a strong one, until John is indefinitely summoned back to duty following the 9/11 tragedy. The young lovers try to keep their relationship alive through a series of letters, but time is not on their side, leaving John torn between honoring his heart and serving his country.
Considering Sparks follows the "go big or go home" philosophy regarding romance, I'm surprised Dear John turns out as restrained as it is. I feared the story would veer into My Sister's Keeper territory, shoveling out schmaltz by the frameful, but the sentiment is kept at a pretty manageable level. That the story has been tailored with guys in mind will also be a relief to worried boyfriends everywhere. However, even this isn't enough to cure Dear John's delusions of living in a world where heartache and untold sadness can be boiled down to a few constipated glares at the camera. This film shuns emotional complexity like the plague. Sure, characters don't bawl with every stubbed toe, but they're still shafted of anything resembling human logic here.
I found Dear John to be "pleasant" in every negative, air quote-inducing sense of the word. Director Lasse Hallstrom almost goes out of his way to avoid making tough decisions, and those he does make come across are noticeably glossed over. On the off chance viewers are jolted from their respective stupors, it's usually to sample the awkward dialogue or snicker at Channing Tatum's ill-advised attempts to summon an emotion. Still, Dear John holds just enough appeal to elude condemnation to the bowels of the Hallmark Channel. In spite of performing opposite a Stepford Actor, Seyfried is a total sweetie, taking on her role with more conviction than the script appears to do. Plus, while the main romantic woes are a washout, the film's most tender moments come courtesy of Richard Jenkins, in a very effective turn as John's troubled father.
Like many recent love stories, while watching Dear John you care less about seeing the evolution of a relationship than about whether the story earns its foregone conclusion. At that point, the movie's lost you anyway, and try as its inviting cinematography and good intentions might, Dear John remains a film without much soul to it.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Screen Gems and rated "PG-13" for some sensuality and violence.)