Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Dear John" is a Love Letter to Failure and Heartbreak

Why lie? When the trailer for "Dear John" first broke on the internet, we couldn’t get through it without getting a little choked up. Come on! From the guy who wrote the ultimate tear-jerker, "The Notebook," comes another gloriously saccharine syrupy tale of young love torn asunder. Throw in that damn Snow Patrol song, a 9-11 theme and a few glamour shots of wet, half-naked Channing Tatum and ethereal Breck girl Amanda Seyfried and we were sold. Sadly, "Dear John" is much better as a trailer than as an actual film.

The pre-Valentine’s Day date flick offering is the story of John Tyree (Channing Tatum), a Special Forces solider, who meets and falls for Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) while on leave at home in North Carolina. After just two weeks together, the pair is madly, desperately, in love, a romance that plays out through a series of Dear John letters as John returns to combat duty.

Adapted from Nicholas Sparks’ novel of the same name, it has all the signature Sparks’ elements audiences have gobbled up along with their Junior Mints and XXL popcorn, making the author one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood. There’s a summer love story set in a small town in North Carolina, the couple has a catch phrase (“I’ll be seeing you” is “See you soon then” this time around), and the romantic heroes make out in the rain. It’s a formula that’s worked like Novocain before. But not this time.

Part of the blame lands squarely on Sparks’ shoulders. It’s very difficult to be invested in a romance where the main characters spend the majority of the film apart, making the love story feel untethered and unsatisfying. But bigger fault lies in the direction by Lasse Hallstrom, whose previous work runs the gamut from profoundly brilliant ("What’s Eating Gilbert Grape," "My Life as a Dog") to the legendarily campy (Hallstrom directed 26 of ABBAs best known music videos, including "Dancing Queen"). "Dear John" is neither. Lost somewhere in a no man’s land of sad sack melodrama and thwarted romance, the film is like a child first learning to play the saxophone. While some notes land on their mark, most are cringingly off key.

Despite other flaws, the one constant in the film is good acting. Tatum turns in an unexpectedly layered, emotionally revealing performance, while Seyfried lends her role an interestingly quirky twist. Richard Jenkins, as always, is stellar as John’s distant father, a relationship which provides the most deeply touching scene in the film, and Henry Thomas, of early "E.T" fame, has a small but pivotal role that is mostly notable because, well, it’s Henry frickin’ Thomas ("Ehhh-lee-ot").
Neither a great film nor a terrible film, this is the kind of movie that makes men roll their eyes close around Valentine’s Day when their girlfriends say "Oh honey, we have to go see that!"

Dear John,

It doesn’t seem right to say this in writing but there’s no other way. We don’t ever want to see you again. It’s not you. It’s us. It simply wasn’t meant to be.


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