Nicholas Sparks—the reigning king of goopy, folksy, ham-fisted romantic fiction—is back, and this time with his schmaltzy guns a-blazing. We’ve got not one, but two characters with autism (one of whom has a stroke—take that Rain Man), war, beefcake, gunfights, cancer, 9/11 and even a great big explosion. The movie adaptation of Sparks’ novel of the same name is exactly as manipulative and overwrought as you might expect, and just as solemn and overly serious as you might fear.
The gist is that bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold and Green Beret John (the ever bulbous Channing Tatum, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra) falls madly in love with the woman of his dreams, Savannah (Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer’s Body), while on leave. Though he’s a nice enough guy, John also has a past of teenage rebellion (that appears to be limited to causing ruckuses at seafood restaurants), which seems to tie into his strained relationship with his coin-collecting, autistic father (Richard Jenkins, Burn After Reading). But deep down, John is really a big softie, and after their fortnight of trysting, he and Savannah decide to keep up a correspondence—and to stay faithful to one another—while John is overseas finishing up his tour of duty.
Everything is going fine, until Sept. 11, 2001 comes around and John decides to re-up his commitment to the Army. At first, everything seems OK between the happy couple, but then Savannah suddenly—and seemingly inexplicably—becomes engaged (this “twist” got laughs from the audience I saw the film with, which I assume wasn’t the preferred response … honestly, I got a chuckle out of it, too). John’s reaction to this—and a healthy smattering of melodramatics—makes up the crux of the movie, as he continues, for years, to bear a torch for Savannah (well, at least we’re told it’s years, but it’s hard to tell, since no one ever seems to age and we rarely get any frame of reference in regards to time passing besides Tatum’s Anton Lavey goatee at the end of the movie).
The premise is no great shakes in itself, but there are also two fatal flaws in the approach—besides the constant parade of clichéd hard luck—that keep Dear John from being anything more than a gussied up soap opera. First, Tatum just doesn’t have the chops to be the kind of heartsick, wounded heartthrob the material demands. Whenever he tries to emote or get teary-eyed, it’s about as awkward as watching a giraffe ice skate. Not once did I believe that two weeks of hanging out with Savannah and one hot night in a horse stable (talk about romance) was enough to have John hung up on her for half a decade.
However, not all of this is Tatum’s fault, which brings me to the film’s second big failing. It’s impossible to believe in this big, epic romance between these two people when Seyfried’s character has no personality. We learn nothing about her interests, her hobbies, her friends, her home life. She likes horses and wants to help people with autism—that’s about it. Yet we’re supposed to really feel for John once he gets dumped by this insipid girl.
Even with all this going against it, Dear John at least remains watchable. This is pretty much due to the assured direction of Lasse Halström (The Hoax), who—with an apparent hit on his hands after a recent series of well-made busts—does what he can with a flaccid script. He’s smart enough to keep the film moving along, and it’s occasionally stylish, even if he’s fighting a losing battle when it comes to making Dear John anything more than painless. Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence.