Dear John, which opens today, is based on a Nicholas Sparks book in which young lovers (Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum) keep their relationship alive by writing to each other. Sadly, critics did not love it, "like McAdams loves Gosling."
Their star-crossed romance begins in the summer of 2001 when John (Tatum) retrieves Savannah (Seyfried)'s purse from the ocean after she accidentally drops it off a pier. (Sample snooze-worthy dialogue: Savannah says about the bag, "This is my life in here," then repeats the line to John a few minutes later.) John is a Special Forces soldier on two-week leave in South Carolina, and within days the two are canoodling on the beach and promising their undying love to each other. They plans to keep in touch by sending letters when he redeploys, but after 9/11 his short tour of duty becomes a long commitment when he's sent to a desert-filled location he can't identify (because it would make the movie too political).
As in every Nicholas Sparks story, there are side characters who suffer from what one critic calls "Convenient Disease Syndrome." In this case it's autism: Savannah realizes John's emotionally distant, coin-collecting father (Richard Jenkins) probably has Asperger's Syndrome, and the son of the single dad (Henry Thomas, a.k.a. Elliot from E.T.) who lives next to Savannah is autistic (he's played by 6-year-old Braeden Reed, who actually has autism.)
Dear John is directed by Lasse Hallström, who also directed What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, and The Cider House Rules, but critics say this film is mediocre even when compared to other films based on Nicholas Sparks books. Though there is some kissing in the rain, it's no Notebook. Apparently montages of letters traveling through the postal system and gorgeous South Carolina sunsets aren't all that thrilling. (Says one reviewer: "There's good reason to suspect that the movie was actually directed by the South Carolina Tourism Board.")
While Seyfried does the best she can with the poorly-written dialogue, the reviews were chock full of colorful euphemisms for "Channing Tatum can't act." While the Salon reviewer tries to paint the film as a wartime melodrama, not a chick flick, Roger Ebert shoots down that theory saying, "In this movie, war is a plot device." Many of the other critics just used the film's title as an opportunity to write cutesy reviews in break-up letter format. To them I say, "Dear Critics, People read your reviews for thoughtful film analysis, not a five-paragraph description of clichés found in Nicholas Sparks films. I think we're going to have to take a break (at least until next week)."
Below, the reviews:
Besides indulging in redundancy, director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat) skims the surface with his characters, giving them each one defining characteristic. John is a brave soldier. Savannah loves horses. It's hard to get swept up in a tale so superficial. Hallstrom creates little more than a picture-postcard image of romance, complete with the beach at sunset and tastefully shot embraces. The couple's signature signoff, "I'll see you soon, then" is repeated half a dozen times - in case we missed their heartfelt affection.
Dear John the latest attempt to bring [Sparks'] warm, earnest, therapeutic sensibility to the screen, falls in the upper middle range of Sparks film adaptations. If it lacks the epic sweep and extravagant emotionalism of The Notebook - Oh, Ryan and Rachel! Oh, James and Gena! - it also is free of the creepy piety and watered-down eros of A Walk To Remember. In the hands of director Lasse Hallstrom, a blue-chip hack with a sure touch even when he's slumming for a paycheck, this story of interrupted passion takes on a ripe, summery glow...
A lot of it succeeds. Mr. Tatum, in his movie roles so far - A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Fighting, both directed by Dito Montiel, are the best - has shown himself to be an actor of narrow range. But his potential is evident, and his magnetism is undeniable. He is shrewd enough to stay within his comfort zone, and able to make the most of his interactions with more nimble performers, like Ms. Seyfried, a resourceful and engaging young actress industriously turning herself into a movie star.
Dear John needs to attract a sizable female audience to succeed at the boxoffice. Despite the impending Valentine's Day vibe, this looks like a long shot because of a complete lack of chemistry between the film's two leads, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried... Seyfried gives the character and her relationship all she's got, but she can't do all the heavy lifting. The romance is too one-sided, and frankly, you can't blame her for steering her life into another channel.
Note: This review is written as a letter addressed to Nicholas Sparks.
Then you went and ruined things. No, I'm not upset by what eventually happens. You set me up for that by calling the darn thing Dear John. After all we've been through, I've come to expect melodramatic plot developments in your work (separation, fatal illness, a hurricane). Rather, it's the excuse you came up with for Savannah's actions. I don't know how else to say this, but it feels like, well, a lie. Even Seyfried, who otherwise makes a credible love interest, couldn't convince me — or, by the sound of the audience's nervous laughter, anyone else in the theater — that she had to do what she did.
Note: This review is written as a letter from Amanda Seyfried's character Savannah.
It's crazy the way things turned out, when you think about it. I mean, maybe not for the audience, but for us, the whole thing was a wonderful adventure. Every character got a chance to be noble and self-sacrificing (or sacrificed); nobody was the bad guy, except maybe that Arab who shot you. Whenever we doubted our feelings for each other, the music-the sappy, asphyxiating, ever-present music-was there to remind us how strong our passion really was. And the first time we kissed, on the construction site of that house I was volunteering to build for charity, in the pouring rain … well, I'd always dreamed of kissing a boy in the rain, ever since I saw The Notebook ...
I have to say in all modesty that Amanda Seyfried was really, really good as me. She's such a luminous actress, a little slip of a thing with huge hyperthyroidal Bette Davis eyes and flossy fairy-princess hair and a beautiful ingénue singing voice. (Remember that song I played you on the guitar the night before you left for the front, that was one of the few bearable musical moments of the movie? She wrote it herself!) Seyfried may yet not be quite up to the challenge of playing the care-weary wife of the later scenes, but, honestly, you have to hand it to her for taking a script of pure sugar and spinning at least her own scenes into pink cotton candy. Channing Tatum, playing you, might not have had the broadest expressive range, but he seemed genuinely bedazzled by Amanda Seyfried (can you blame him?), and his slightly slablike quality suited the character well. And that scene where he-I mean you-read a letter out loud to your sick father saying all the things you'd never been able to say? That got a tear out of even that one poker-faced movie critic in the second row. (What's her deal, anyway? Is she somehow opposed to watching beautiful young people have discreetly framed PG-13 sex while listening to lite R & B?)
What's not good at all is how the story loses energy and interest when Savannah is off screen and John is slogging his way through several low-rent combat sequences. They get together again, of course; Mr. Sparks is a specialist in poignant reunions. But John's prolonged absence has made the course of true love disagreeably bumpy, and the perplexities of the hero and heroine are compounded by the limitations of the performances. Though Ms. Seyfried is a lovely actress, her inexperience shows in her climactic scenes, which aren't written very well to begin with, while Mr. Tatum's stolid reserve decays into dull passivity. A wealth of experience allows Richard Jenkins to transcend the limitations of his role as John's severely repressed but loving father, an obsessive coin collector who manifests symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. He's not alone in his struggle to prevail over adversity. Other characters must deal with autism and lymphoma in a movie that suffers from Convenient Disease Syndrome.
In the past few days and weeks, I've heard lots of derisive snorts about Lasse Hallström's Dear John, including plenty of snide comments about its being "just another chick flick." But I think the movie fits more comfortably, without compromise or apology, into the category of wartime melodrama. And even though it's set, relatively speaking, in contemporary times — the story opens in the months before 9/11 and takes us to the present day — in its mood and feeling (though not in its style or execution) it has more in common with '40s wartime dramas than it does with any other recent war-related movie I can think of. The characters in those movies look like grown-ups (and many of them are full-fledged adults), but those stories frame the possibility of loss and heartbreak in such dramatic terms that they feel youthful at their core. Dear John is like that, too, reminding us in very stark visual terms that it's mostly young people, very young people, who go to war. Just looking at the faces of its two stars, Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum, brings that home. In our culture, it's a luxury to be young and beautiful. But for these characters, it also means they have plenty to lose.
Dear John exists only to coddle the sentiments of undemanding dreamers, and plunge us into a world where the only evil is the interruption of the good. Of course John is overseas on a series of missions so secret that Savannah cannot be told where, exactly, he is. In the years after 9/11, where, oh where, could he be? Apparently not in Iraq or Afghanistan, because it can hardly be a military secret that the men of Special Forces are deployed there. But somewhere, anyway, and he re-enlists for a good chunk of her early childbearing years, perhaps because, as The Hurt Locker informs us, "war is a drug."
It matters not. In this movie, war is a plot device. It loosens its grip on John only long enough to sporadically renew his romance, before claiming him again so that we finally consider Savannah's Dear John letter just good common sense. Now that I've brought that up: considering that the term "Dear John letter" has been in constant use since World War II, and that the hero of this movie is inevitably destined to receive such a letter, is it a little precious of Sparks to name him "John"? I was taught in Dan Curley's fiction class that when the title of a story is cited in the story itself, the story's spell is broken. But then Sparks never took Curley's class.
It's surprisingly beside the point that the film is directed by Lasse Hallström, once the capable chaperone of My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, and The Cider House Rules. Hallström's veteran creative hand barely shows up at all in Dear John. In fact, there's good reason to suspect that the movie was actually directed by the South Carolina Tourism Board; that would explain why all the focus is on luscious sunsets, shoreline frolics, stately plantations, and kisses in the shimmering rain. Many scenes are also enhanced by Channing Tatum's copper-toned abs and pecs, which practically deserve their own casting credits.
What we don't really have is an actual film but a very long music video with lots of montages of John and Savannah "moments" as they read their letters in absentia, which means neither the fans nor the foes of The Notebook are likely to be satisfied.