Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins
Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”)
Written by: Jamie Linden (“We Are Marshall”)
There’s only so much a filmmaker can do to avoid over-romanticizing the film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. While a director like Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”) has proven in the past that he can create great chemistry between actors (Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron in “Cider,” Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche in “Chocolat”) , it’s not always about the lovey-doviness.
If that was the case, “Dear John” wouldn’t fare so badly. There are, however, intangibles that make a difference in whether or not a story succeeds. In “Dear John,” Hallstrom and screenwriter Jamie Linden (“We Are Marshall”) almost manage to get past most of the pitfalls of a sentimental romance, but the third act is so incoherent when compared to the first hour of the film, it’s hard to fully recommend it.
The film follows the lovefest between special forces soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and innocent college girl Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) who meet at author Sparks’ favorite locale – the beach (see “Message in a Bottle,” “Nights in Rodanthe”) – during a two-week-long spring break.
The courtship begins easy enough, but, of course, there’s only two weeks to get these young lovebirds to the point where they can’t live without each other. Things begin to progress rather quickly like most cinematic romances. John is a man with a past, although not much is explained about what made him so troublesome before he shaped up in the Army. He lets Savannah deep into his life and even introduces her to his coin-collecting-reclusive father (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins) who Savannah believes is showing signs of autism.
While John and Savannah’s relationship flies by fast, Hallstrom and Linden are able to make the love story believable and sweet enough without drowning it in too much sap. The father-son story between Tatum and Jenkins offers an affectionate element rarely seen in these types of films. It’s a heartwarming part of the narrative mostly because of Jenkins’ effortless performance, which is, unfortunately, thinly-written.
Where “Dear John” falters most is when John and Savannah are sent on their separate ways. John must return to military duty while Savannah goes back to college. Before they say their goodbyes, the two make promises to each other including keeping in contact through letters. The long-distance relationship is less interesting as letter pass back and forth and the narration becomes more and more like something you would find in the greeting card section marked “Missing You.”
When John proclaims to Savannah that “It’ll all be over soon and I’ll be back for good,” he doesn’t anticipate something like 9/11 happening. The tragedyaffects their plans to be together when John decides to reenlist with the rest of his platoon. From there, “Dear John” just delays the inevitable as the story becomes more and more melodramatic with each mail call. Hallstrom and Linden play the sympathy card for the final half-hour and unfortunately turn “Dear John” into an overemotional and manipulative mess.