Romantic drama follows weepy formula to the letter
Adapted from Sparks' novel for maximum water works by Jamie Linden, and directed by veteran postcard-scenery-maker Lasse Hallestrom, "Dear John" is the sort of thing Hollywood cranked out by the dozen between 1942 and 1945. Today, nearly a decade into America's current wars overseas, we as a nation are ready for another one of these programmers. And like "The Blind Side," "Dear John" offers audiences a meat-and-potatoes story of love, loyalty, heartfelt generosity and other matters seldom brought to the screen with any skill at all.
I truly wish "Dear John" were a better, less shamelessly manipulative movie, but a couple of the actors got me through it alive. One is Amanda Seyfried, who plays Savannah, the golden child of Charleston, S.C. She can play a driven-snow saint without making you gag. Down at the beach with her friends one day, she meets John, a Green Beret with a violent past, an autistic father ( Richard Jenkins, another asset) and a heart like a lion. John is played by Channing Tatum, whom I wouldn't personally list as one of the film's better performers. Straight women and gay men may disagree with me, though, and it wouldn't be the first time.
John and Savannah's Summer of 2001 fling is followed by 9-11,which throws a wrench into the couple's plans. John re-ups; the letters continue back and forth, as they tend to do in Sparks stories; and then comes a Dear John letter of a sadder variety. Jenkins' character, portrayed movingly and well and with a subtlety lacking in the rest of the film, struggles while his son fights overseas; Henry Thomas glides in and out of the narrative as Savannah's childhood pal and neighbor, whose little boy is also autistic.
It's too bad the script didn't tone down some of the more obvious broad strokes, such as Savannah's pining, pathetic suitor (Scott Porter), painted as a horrible, insulting, presumably more-liberal-than-John weasel. Undeniably Hollywood spends far more time stereotyping conservatives than liberals. But still.
We love to take comfort from the movies, to look up to the characters on-screen and say: That's nobility. All the same, even romance-novel romances are better with a little more grit and a little less gloss. Seyfried and Jenkins manage to make their characters character-ful; everybody else in "Dear John," which I suspect will be a hit, works to their best of their abilities.
Dear John ✭✭
A couple conducts their romance via mail when the young man is re-deployed to Iraq after 9-11.
With Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried. Directed by Lasse Hallestrom.
Running time: 102 minutes
Rated PG-13: Sensuality, violence