Dear John is not a movie that was made for me. It’s a dewey-eyed tale of perfect young love, based on novel by Nichols Sparks, and is being marketed as a de facto sequel to The Notebook. I’m fairly confident that when the folks who made this one were contemplating their target audience, they weren’t saying, “Let’s make this one for the married male 34-year-old New York cynic.”So I’m not sure entirely how to respond to a film like this one. Yes, it’s trite and manipulative and loaded (I mean loaded) with clichés. But does its audience care? Am I just being a party pooper by registering complaints that will fall on deaf ears? Is this the kind of film where critical response has anything whatsoever to do with how it is received? Who knows. Look, I’m not immune to the pleasures of a good weepy romance—hell, I’m one of the five people in America who saw and enjoyed Meet Joe Black. This kind of thing can be done well. But it’s not done particularly well here.
John (Channing Tatum), a Special Forces soldier on leave, and Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a college student on spring break, Meet Cute on the beach. They’re attractive people—he’s buff and handsome, she’s got huge green eyes and a nice crooked smile—so we understand why they’re drawn to each other, at least initially. But they’re not terribly interesting; Jamie Linden’s screenplay seems to want to get their initial conversations out of the way as quickly as possible, so as to move on to a less taxing method of storytelling (music montages, lots of music montages), but there’s no particular spark or energy to their dialogue; they mostly communicate in pleasantries and insipid platitudes.
Anyway, they spend this, like, amazing two weeks together (that’s what we’re told, anyway, though we see most of it in the form of, um, music montages), but towards the end we have the inevitable (and frankly, contrived) conflict and predictable fall-out. But they kiss and make up before she goes back to school and he goes back overseas, and they decide to write each other all the time, to write down everything, so as to make his year-long tour more tolerable. She’ll finish school, he’ll finish his tour, they live happily ever after.
There’s no question that Dear John is involving in spite of itself; whatever its flaws, these two are charismatic and director Lasse Hallström is pulling some pretty basic strings effectively. But the writing is just atrocious—particularly in this section, in which the film turns into, basically, a series of voice-overs, so we can put their plodding prose front and center (accompanied by such ingenious visual accompaniment as, no kidding, a sequence that illustrates how the mail system works). They write and write, and there’s another music montage, and then… well, then 9/11 happens.
Hey, that caught you off guard, didn’t it? You wouldn’t think a lightweight romance like this one would exploit 9/11, would ya? Surprise! In all fairness, I did, in fact, see it coming—there’s an awkward title card at the beginning of the film to inform us that it begins in “Spring 2001,” and since he’s in the army and there’s absolutely no other reason for a story like this to take place nine years in the past, yeah, I kinda put it together. At any rate, John flies home on a two-day pass the weekend after, and Savannah slips under the airport security barriers so she can run to greet and kiss him, and then Hallström gives us awkward cutaways of people going through the security lines chuckling happily at young love. Um, I flew the weekend after 9/11, and that would not have been the response to someone, blonde white girl or not, breaching airport security. Savannah woulda got shot!
At any rate, apparently the 9/11 hijackers are not only responsible for thousands of deaths—they also provide a handy plot point to break up John and Savannah, since he’s pressured by his unit to re-enlist and the pair drift apart (sorry if that’s a spoiler, but Jesus, you didn’t think the title was coincidental, did you?). It’s here that Linden creates a major structural mistake, staying entirely with John for a long stretch of the third act, presuming we only care about him, since our only hint of her state of mind is a single shot of her crying at the beach. When their reunion occurs, the scene is marred by an unfortunate moment of bad acting from Seyfried (it’s the only one, but it’s a doozy) and some goofy business with her farm, and then we realize that they kept us in the dark about her solely to set up a lame “surprise” twist and to pile on some sickness and death.
The primary problem with Dear John is that you’ve seen it all so many times before—the romance between the soft guy with the dark past and the rich good girl, the kissing-in-the-rain courtship, the artfully lit tasteful sex scene, the inevitable strain of the long-distance relationship, etc. There’s nothing wrong with returning to well-trod ground, but Linden’s screenplay is simply tearjerker Mad-Libs, and Hallström’s direction is expectedly flavorless (his filmography includes the similarly bland The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and Casanova). There are individual moments and specific performances that work—Henry Thomas is quite good, and Richard Jenkins is wonderful, but then Richard Jenkins is always wonderful. His final scene with Tatum wants to move us, and we want it to, but Linden inexplicably recycles the same voice-over that Tatum opened the movie with, so we’re not thinking about the scene, we’re thinking, “Jesus, are they really gonna have him do that whole speech again?”
Again, Dear John is not pitched at me. There are, I’m sure, vast swaths of the movie-going public who like Nicholas Sparks books, and like the movies based on them, and will eat this one up with a spoon. If you like this kind of movie, well then, you’re going to like this movie. That’s the best I can do for you.
"Dear John" opens Friday, February 5th in wide release.