With Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins. Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence. 105 minutes.
Uh, oh. We’re in Nicholas Sparks territory again. The best-selling author whose books “The Notebook” and “Nights In Rodanthe” were turned into movies which brought the classic “tearjerker” to a new generation, now tackles 9/11. Naturally, our focus in his latest, DEAR JOHN, is the troubled romance between two beautiful people.
The film opens in the spring of 2001. John (Channing Tatum) is in the Army, stationed in Germany, and home on leave. Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) is a college student home on break and enjoying a week long party with friends. Per the formula, they “meet cute.” Her handbag is knocked off a pier into the ocean and while one of her friends dithers, John leaps off the pier and rescues the bag. They get to talking and it turns out that she’s smart and he’s sensitive. Cue the violins.
At the end of the break, she has to return to school and he has to finish his tour of duty. It’s only a year, he tells her, and then they will be together. In the meantime they will write to each other. Hence the title, which might also suggest that the heartbreak to come is that she’s going to dump him, but it’s much more complicated than that. In fact it is John who is the problem. When the attacks of 9/11 occur, the other men in his unit all extend their service. He does as well. It’s almost like he doesn’t want to come home.
Why? Well, if you enjoy the angst of Sparksworld, no explanation is necessary. His strained relationship with his autistic father (Richard Jenkins) isn’t enough, nor is his patriotism. For those who want logic, the best explanation – never mentioned – seems to be fear of commitment. After some troubled times, barely hinted at, the Army has given structure to his life. Leaving it would make him responsible for his own decisions again.
In short, John and Savannah act like characters in a novel, doing things not because this is what actual human beings would do but because the plot needs further complications. “Dear John” gets to the point where one doesn’t care much because their actions are so contrived. Indeed, we even see John make a decision in battle by flipping a coin that belonged to his father. How symbolic. How absurd.
In the leads, Tatum and Seyfried are pretty and manage to play this material straight, for which they deserve credit. Indeed, Seyfried turns out to be able to act, which may come as a surprise to those who know her only from “Mamma Mia!” in which she was just plain awful. Of course that film even defeated consummate actress Meryl Streep, so perhaps the blame lies elsewhere. In any event, Seyfried, a regular on HBO’s “Big Love,” turns in a credible performance here, making one hope that she’ll get the chance in a decent role with a good director. Perhaps she really does have what it takes.
“Dear John” is pure hokum which, like the so-called “women’s pictures” of the 1950s may be redeemed by future critics and revealed to have a rich subtext. However, in 2010, it looks just plain silly.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.