Nicholas Sparks’ novels adapted for the screen make for good romantic fare with no shortage of tear-jerking situations, the jerkiest of which being 2004’s THE NOTEBOOK. His latest, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, is DEAR JOHN with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried playing the young lovers attempting to overcome the obstacles of the plot. Obstacles in relationships span from situation’s as diverse as the Bard’s “Romeo and Juliet” to Billy Joe Royal’s 1965 song “Down in the Boondocks,” but one thing DEAR JOHN does well that has typically been the death nail for other films is incorporate a post-9/11 military aspect to the story. This is overcome due to our investment in the early stages of the relationship of Seyfried and Tatum. They are likable leads and well acted characters, but years pass in the movie with no explanation and its easy to get lost in the ambiguous timeline. By the time they meet again later in the film, we are confused and less interested due to that confusion. Also, the premise of the film in the title – writing letters – is an antiquated concept in the age of e-mail and IM and what not, even in times of war. Finally, the ending is quickly thrown together and lacks the emotional punch we’d expect from this consummate tear-jerker.
Channing Tatum plays John Tyree, an Army Special Forces sergeant on leave back home in Charleston, surfing to show off his Army body. He meets Seyfried’s Savannah Curtis as she is on a break from college and in their 2 weeks together they develop a sweet relationship that feels real. The story hints at John’s past as a troublemaker but it only manifests in one altercation at a beach party after a fight with Savannah and we never see it again. There are sweet elements involving Savannah’s friends Tim (Henry Thomas) and his autistic son, and a great performance by Richard Jenkins as John’s father. However, as they part and begin their pen pal relationship we become less interested as we simply get a series of montages and voiceovers. The conflict occurs within John after 9/11 when he is torn between getting out of the service to be with Savannah or re-enlisting to fight the war and support his Army unit. Later, there is a nice element of surprise when we find out Savannah has pursued another relationship and in finding out with whom, but then there’s a quickly thrown together story of an illness and a death which takes us away from the romance only to throw it back together again hastily. The ending got to some of the women in the theater, but not all of them, and dry eyes at the end of a Sparks’ movie is not a good sign.
Tatum does well here as the gentle warrior who wins the girl with more than just his physique. He has emotional scenes dealing with his possible re-enlistment after September 11th and a medical condition of his father’s, and it doesn’t feel forced or contrived. When he gets his real “Dear John” letter about Savannah being engaged to someone else, he doesn’t oversell his pain, but makes the smart decision to play it down. As Savannah, Amanda Seyfried is adorable and charming, especially in the sweetness displayed toward Tim’s autistic child and John’s father. I’ve always liked Seyfried and appreciate the diversity of her larger roles as of late (MAMMA MIA!, JENNIFER’S BODY, to this). Richard Jenkins plays the role of John’s father incredibly well, with reserve for most of the film but with a heartbreaking scene of panic befitting an actor of his caliber. Other supporting players play their parts well, but their side stories lead to drastic changes in the plot, but aren’t fully fleshed out.
The problem is not the performances, but rather the second half of the film, so that even when John and Savannah meet up again towards the end, we don’t care as much as we should. As I walked out, I heard some women saying the ending was changed from the ending in the book. Not having read it, I cannot say, but maybe sticking with the original ending would have been a better route to take.