After an interminable five weeks of studio movies, Dear John was a most unexpected surprise: It was a film. I would stop far short of calling it a good film, but it had the elements of one: It had actual performances, instead of line readings mixed with funny and/or serious faces; it had a story, instead of a high concept; and it had a director. An honest to God director.
I have no doubt that the Nicholas Sparks novel that Dear John was based on was a sappy, tear-jerking piece of paperback trash, but Lasse Hallström (Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) managed to rein (r-e-i-n) it in — the sentimentality was restrained and, at times, even holstered. Given the source material, I doubt any director could’ve won me over, but at least Hallström didn’t offend, nor did he attempt to bang on the heart strings until they were frayed and weak.
The result, however, is actually a film that’s more boring than sappy — Hallström doesn’t tell you that the two people at the center of the story are in love, he tries to show you. And that takes time — it takes a lengthy, slow-paced exposition that drags. That exposition is also all of what the marketing of Dear John presents, suggesting that it’s a cheesy, treacly teenage love drama. It’s really more of an adult soap opera, though that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
It’s early 2001, and a special forces officer John Tyree (Channing Tatum), is on leave for two weeks, goofing off on the beach, when he meets Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried). They are immediately taken with one another, and spend those two weeks getting to know one another in almost painful detail. John has a tough guy past that he’s mellowed from, and he lives with his autistic father (the always fantastic Richard Jenkins), who collects coins. Meanwhile, Savannah is somewhat naive and overly kind-hearted.
Once it’s established that they’re in love via walks on the beach and the necessary musical montage, John goes back to the service with promises that they’ll write letters. And write. And write. And so we have to suffer through letter after letter after letter, until 9/11, when John becomes torn between his patriotic duty to re-enlist against Savanah’s wishes, or return home to be with his lady.
Dear John unfolds predictably, and then not. Hallström, it seems, almost takes pains not to give his target audience exactly what they want, which is The Notebook. It’s clearly a spiritual successor to that movie, but it’s not as effusively sentimental — it doesn’t beat you over the head with a loud score or weepy histrionics. I actually appreciated that about Dear John, but I suspect a lot of the women in the audience wanted more, and may have left unsatisfied, while I left relieved that Hallström didn’t try too hard to manipulate.
Nevertheless, Hallström didn’t have a lot to work with — Channing Tatum, even as the stone-faced military guy, is weak and unconvincing. And while the autism subplots gave Richard Jenkins an opportunity to actually act, they felt extraneous (the same goes for Henry Thomas, who had a strong turn as the father of an autistic kid that lived next door to Savannah). Doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried was her usual doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried self — she’s pretty, and likable, but she’s not really much more than that yet.
It’s a decent love story, though. There’s even a kernel of genuine heart in it. It’s not a love story that I’m particularly drawn to — it’s Legends of the Fall only less sweeping and half as dramatic — but I could actually see how a certain audience could leave the theater and not feel disappointed. That’s hardly a recommendation, but it’s at least the first time in 2010 that I’ve left a theater and not felt completely ripped off.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is forced to run obnoxious ads in order to remain so. If you would like to point out a spelling, factual, or grammatical error, please have the courtesy to email him. Otherwise, comments are very welcome below.