Dear John – Review


Like a Notebook that’s missing several pages.

Novelist Nicholas Sparks knows his readers all too well. With fifteen books so far, his portrayal of romance and relationships is comparable to John Grisham and legal thrillers; no matter the quality of the writing, a large portion of the public will pick up each new novel. Syrupy and easy for the reader to digest, Sparks’ stories are fanciful Harlequin novels that have found much success.

The cinematic adaptations of Sparks’ novels are more or less what readers have come to expect: melodrama with a heavy reliance on romance and tragedy. The latest one, Dear John, doesn’t lay the melodrama on as thick, aside from one or two scenes. And it isn’t as sappy as one would imagine. However it does fall victim of pacing issues in the middle act and the inability to get the most out of its literary device – letter writing.

It’s March 2001 and John Tyree (Channing Tatum), a Army Special Forces officer on leave, has returned home to North Carolina to spend time with his father (Richard Jenkins), a reserved man who sticks to routine – baking Lasagna every Sunday afternoon, for instance. While on leave John meets Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), a college student home for spring break. With only two weeks together a romance begins almost immediately. They commit to their relationship through letters as he is about to ship out to Germany and she is about to return to college. In their written correspondences John and Savannah share their most intimate details about themselves, disclosing just about everything. John thought he had it all planned out. Another year of military service then making lifelong plans with his true love. That all changes on 9/11 when John re-enlists. His added time away from Savannah leads her to send him a “Dear John” letter for real.

While the effort to express your love through the written word is a noble pursuit, its depiction in film is challenging to pull off. Yes this relationship is strengthened because of each new correspondence, but how the manner in which it is conveyed, through writing montages and voice-over snippets, it is mishandled. Lasse Hallstrom may have guided Oscar nominees like Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, but he’s become a purveyor of sentimentality in recent years. Dear John loses focus in the second and third acts when the romance becomes an afterthought as John mends the relationship with his father. So why go to the trouble of building the romance then include this subplot? Either relationship (boyfriend-girlfriend or father-son) would have been compelling enough by itself. The need to include the father-son arc shows that the screenwriter is unsure of where he wants the story to go.

Given the story hang-ups, the principal actors make the best of a bad situation. Hallstrom, who guided Jennifer Lopez to an okay performance in An Unfinished Life, does the same for Channing Tatum. The character he plays isn’t as flashy as that of a G. I. Joe. He’s short-tempered but with a heart. Hallstrom is able to rein Tatum in and make him appear competent in scenes where he is clearly outmatched by better actors. Amanda Seyfried, who is quickly proving that she’s one of the best young actresses in Hollywood currently, looks to get the Rachel McAdams treatment after she did The Notebook, which is so far the most successful Nicholas Sparks adaptation. (Coincidentally both actresses appeared in Mean Girls as members of the Plastics clique.) Her screen time in the drama is limited but she meets the needed requirements of her character – basically to expresses the needed emotion at a particular juncture.

Dear John
has moments of promise that go spoiled by bad plotting. It also lacks the sensuality one would expect from a romance. While ardent fans of romantic dramas could care less, those unwitting males who get dragged to see this might want to start formulating your own “Dear (Insert Significant Other’s Name Here)” letter.

Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Notable Cast: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas
Writer(s): Jamie Linden

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