A film review by Craig J. Koban March 13, 2010


2010, PG-13, 105 mins.


John: Channing Tatum / Savannah: Amanda Seyfried / Mr. Tyree: Richard Jenkins / Tim: Henry Thomas / Noodles: D.J. Cotrona / Rooster: Cullen Moss

Screen Gems presents a film directed by Lasse Hallstrom / Written by Jamie Linden, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks

DEAR JOHN is another Harlequin romantic melodrama from the auspices of the Nicholas’ Sparks’ literary canon, which has included such books-made-to-films as MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE, A WALK TO REMEMBER, NIGHTS IN RODANTHE, and, yes, THE NOTEBOOK, the motherload of all recent effective weepies.  Much like many of Sparks’ other screen adaptations – and their source material – DEAR JOHN is awash in cornball, almost mawkish sentimentality and dramatic manipulation.  

Just how manipulative, you may ask?  Well, it has subplots involving not one, but two characters suffering from debilitating mental diseases and one that eventually suffers from cancer, not to mention an unscrupulous use of 9/11 as a licentious plot device to propel the narrative to a tear-jerking third act (granted, the film does not use that day in recent infamy to the same offensive levels as REMEMBER ME did).  So, in short, the film is unrelentingly manipulative

Of course, there is often nothing wrong with a perfunctory tearjerker…if it is done with the right tact…and DEAR JOHN is indeed a shameless tearjerker that is shamelessly watchable at times.  It deals with the two most paramount themes of Sparks' romantic milieu – love and tragedy – and even though the film lays it on extra thick in its final act with some late breaking plot twists and deceptions that will make many roll their eyes and seek out a barf bag instead of a Kleenex, the film sort of glides down its path via some solid performances and the natural and unforced chemistry of its two main lead actors.   Even though DEAR JOHN is riddled with inanely convenient story contrivances and the obligatory elements of other similar genre efforts, the film has a central relationship that’s well developed and fairly moving: two young souls with the world and their lives fully in front of them fail to find everlasting happiness and love with one another.  Yes, this has been done countless times before, but the thankless performers at least make it involving. 

Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) have one of those requisite movie "meet cutes":  It’s March of 2001 (which means that 9/11 will for sure have a place in this story) and she is an aspiring college student on spring break in South Carolina.  John - a tall, beefy, hulking brute of a man with the proverbial tender heart of gold inside - is a Special Forces soldier on leave and just happens to be hanging out at the same pier as Savannah and her friends.  Fate steps in: her purse accidentally falls into the water and the unconditionally well-mannered John jumps into the cold waters and retrieves it.  Of course, if you're a woman and a handsome man that look exactly like Channing Tatum retrieves your purse that looks all but gone, it’s easy to see how any girl would not be instantly smitten.  And, if you’re a man and you had the opportunity to save the purse of Amanda Seyfried, you would literally jump at the chance. 

The two do form a very quick bond and fall very easily in love (as is the case with THE NOTEBOOK, there is a steamy smooch-off set against the backdrop of a torrential rain shower and later a PG-13-eroticized sex scene, complete with carefully covered breasts and midsections).   As they continue to open up to one another John and Savannah also begin to meet people most important in their respective lives:  John is introduced to Savannah’s neighbour, Tim (a very fine Henry Thomas, in a underwritten role) who has a autistic son (autistic character #1) named Alan, who takes a strong liking to Savannah.  Parallel to this, Savannah meets John’s highly reclusive father (autistic character #2, played in a quietly commanding and gently moving performance by the great character actor Richard Jenkins). 

John’s dad is a real enigmatic presence: he stays at home all day and meticulously labors after his prized coin collection... when he is not making chicken casseroles every Saturday and lasagna every Sunday.  Outside of that, the man is a social hermit: he spends all of his time at home and interacts with virtually no one outside of Savannah and his son.  One of the real mysteries of the film is how this character managed to secure an income to live in a beachfront property, support an expensive coin collection hobby, and support his son for a lifetime while clearly being unable to work.  Also a mystery is how John and his departed mother seem to have done nothing in the way of a medical intervention for him either.  Savannah seems to be the only human soul to notice that John’s dad may be “mildly” autistic, which is an understated diagnosis if there ever was one. 

As their two week spring break whirlwind romance is coming to a close, John and Savannah must deal with the inevitable: he will have to hook back up with his squad and report to duty while she will have to return to school.  They make a pact: while apart they will constantly write to each other and confide in one another about everything, which results in a long series of letter between the two of them.  Now, in this film the Internet, email, and phones do not seem to be available to either party, and the film only offers up one moment where one of them picks up a phone to call the other.  Nonetheless, just as John’s tour is about to commence so he can rejoin up with the love of his life, the terrorist attacks in New York occur, which causes him to do some serious soul searching: either stay behind with Savannah or re-enlist and uphold his sworn duties as a soldier.  Clearly, the thought of losing John for another few years does not sit well with Savannah. 

John does, in fact, re-enlist, and one of the dilemmas of DEAR JOHN is with its narrative trajectory afterwards: It seems to have no real clear idea where it wants to go during its last third, not to mention that it builds to a lot of manufactured conflict in the last half hour or so that never once feels genuine.  This film is called “DEAR JOHN,” which not only references a character’s name but also the age-old form of correspondence that a woman uses to royally dump her man (I don’t think there is need for a spoiler warning here).   Savannah hooks up with another man (and if you understand the Law of Economy of Characters, his identity will not be as shocking as the script thinks it is), which leads to unavoidable conflict.  Then, if that were not enough, the films adds the death of one persona and gives another one cancer to milk us for emotional response, all which distracts from the central relationship between John and Savannah.  Equally exasperating are the subplots involving Henry Thomas and Richard Jenkins, which are too leisurely and ill defined for their own good.  As fine as the actors are here, their respective characters kind of haphazardly weave in and out of the narrative without much sense of an overall purpose.  Lastly, the film’s final concluding scene and shot feels patently false and likely the product of a hastily tacked on bit of reshooting. 

Amanda Seyfried brings such a refreshing warmth, natural beauty, poise, and congeniality to every role she is in, and she's no exception her: she is always an inviting and luminous screen presence that makes mediocre films better.  Channing Tatum - an actor that I have been vengefully cruel towards in past reviews for his emotionless, stoic, and grimaced performances  - does a surprisingly serviceable job here as a rugged man of war that has a tender and vulnerable streak.  Both he and Seyfried keep viewers compelled even when the story around them keeps them at a perplexing arms distance (that, and Tatum has a moment of heart wrenching sincerity with his very ill and uncommunicative father, during which his lifelong passion for coins is revealed to have a crucial place in John’s heart as well).  Tatum and Seyfried are a believable movie couple that are regrettably trapped in an overall melodrama that is hard to swallow. 

Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom - whom has made many great and varied dramas in the past, from his Oscar-nominated WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, CHOCOLAT to 2006’s mournfully underrated THE HOAX - is at the helm of DEAR JOHN.   In most of his past films he demonstrated a precise and understated appreciation and handling of character and story.  He is a consummate assured and proven director, but he falters a bit here with DEAR JOHN, especially with a few of the war scenes, which lack a feverous edge and instead have an unintentional softness when compared to other recent great battle-themed films.  Nonetheless, he still fosters good performances out of Tatum (which is a small miracle), Seyfried, and especially Jenkins, an actor so authoritatively subtle that he can suggest volumes by saying and doing so very little.  The real issue that holds back DEAR JOHN from being a passable, eye-watering, and enjoyably sappy melodrama is that its script (by WE ARE MARSHALL scribe Jamie Linden) seems to lack a clearly delineated road map, plus it also has one autism and cancer sufferer too many...and maybe one too many make-out scenes set to rain...and so on.  You get my drift,

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