February 04, 2010

Dear John

After we finish kissing, it's time to hang sheetrock

Grade: C

Director: Lasse Hallström

Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, and Henry Thomas

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

For all their schmaltzy underpinning, two things have always buoyed the movie adaptations of New Bern-based author Nicholas Sparks’ novels. Employing critic’s prerogative first is their North Carolina setting (even if they’re not always filmed in the state). Second is their durable casting, particularly romantic leads that include Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn (Message in a Bottle), Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams (The Notebook), and Richard Gere and Diane Lane (Nights in Rodanthe).

I will not hold against Dear John that it relocates the book’s Wilmington, N.C., setting to Charleston, S.C., a change probably motivated less by artistic license than variances between the states’ respective film incentive programs. But, the casting of Channing Tatum, the hunky hulk who has mumbled his way through roles in Step Up (1 & 2), She’s the Man, Stop-Loss, and G.I. Joe, is troublesome on its face. The choice becomes downright dire once Tatum is called upon to tiptoe his way through the story’s dense emotional minefield.

While on leave from deployment as an Army Ranger and visiting his father’s beach house, John Tyree (Tatum) meets and falls for Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a doe-eyed college student whose summer job appears to be relentless do-gooder. She works for Habitat for Humanity! She looks after her friend’s autistic child and want to work with the developmental challenged after graduation! She successfully diagnoses John’s elderly father (Richard Jenkins) as suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, apparently something no health professional had ever done judging by John’s shocked reaction!

Dear John goes AWOL as a love story, the typical raison d'être for Sparks’ books/films. Contributing factors include Tatum’s performance, a splintered narrative that constantly veers from South Carolina’s shores to John’s post-9/11 reenlistment and deployment, and director Lasse Hallström’s ponderous direction, which distills John and Savannah’s coupling down to frolicking in the surf, making-out in the rain, and monotonous voiceovers of their overseas letters to each other (eventually including the eponymous missive).

The film’s saving grace is the complicated relationship between John and his father, who Jenkins plays with great skill and pathos. John’s dad loves his son but doesn’t possess the ability to fully express it, while John loves his father but lacks the understanding to cope with his emotional deficits. Their strained bond throws the emotional gut-punch inherent to every Sparks tearjerker. More importantly, it’s also Dear John’s most earnest and reflective segment.

Neil Morris

*Originally published at www.indyweek.com

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