Nothing to write home about
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Feb. 05, 2010
Dear Nicholas Sparks,
There's no easy way to say this. But with "Dear John," the latest of the five films made so far from your sentimental, best-selling novels, I think our relationship is in trouble.
I could almost have forgiven you for some of your earlier indiscretions. "A Walk to Remember," for instance, from 2002, may have been mawkish as heck but at least it had Mandy Moore. Ditto for 2004's syrup-laden "The Notebook," which featured strong performances by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.
It's not as if there's anything wrong with the stars of "Dear John," a story of young love and heartbreak centering on the long-distance romance and postal correspondence between a young soldier stationed in the Middle East and the collegiate dream girl he's known for all of two weeks. As John and Savannah, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried make their whirlwind courtship about as believable as any spring fling could be. The first chunk of the film takes place in a South Carolina beach town during her spring break and his military leave. Under the sensitive direction of Swedish filmmaker Lasse Halstrom ("My Life as a Dog"), the two share an effortless chemistry. Their connection, like a warm sea breeze, never feels forced.
I wish I could say the same thing about John's agoraphobic, coin-collecting father (Richard Jenkins). Sure, I loved the actor in "The Visitor," but his character here -- who, it's hinted, suffers from something like Asperger's syndrome -- seems mannered and bordering on twitchy.
Considering that, did you really need a second disabled character?
Savannah's next-door neighbor, an autistic kid named Allen (played at various ages by Braeden Reed and Luke Benward), comes across here as little more than a literary device. And, quite frankly, more than a little manipulative. Are you deliberately playing with my already overworked heartstrings?
I absolutely loved Allen's long-suffering father, Tim, played by Henry Thomas (Elliott from "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"). He's turned into a strong actor.
Then you went and ruined things.
No, I'm not upset by what eventually happens. You set me up for that by calling the darn thing "Dear John." After all we've been through, I've come to expect melodramatic plot developments in your work (separation, fatal illness, a hurricane).
Rather, it's the excuse you came up with for Savannah's actions. I don't know how else to say this, but it feels like, well, a lie. Even Seyfried, who otherwise makes a credible love interest, couldn't convince me -- or, by the sound of the audience's nervous laughter, anyone else in the theater -- that she had to do what she did.
Sorry, I just don't buy it.
I am going to give you one last chance though. It's just too hard to totally hate a movie that celebrates letter writing. In this age of texting, tweeting and Facebooking hook-ups, I can't be too hard on anything -- or anyone -- that makes such a strenuous case for the old-fashioned power of pen and paper to make or break a love connection.
Contains some sensuality, fistfighting and scenes of battlefield violence.