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Review: 'Dear John'

This adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks romance isn't always true to the letter of life.

February 05, 2010|By BETSY SHARKEY | Film Critic

Dear Reader, I'm so sorry, gulp, but "Dear John" is like a very bad relationship with a very beautiful someone: You want it to work, you truly do, but the pain, the guilt, the boredom, the CW soundtrack . . . .

And I wish I could say it's not them, it's me, but I really think it's them.

The film's very beautiful someones are the ab-riffic Channing Tatum as John, whom director Lasse Hallström wisely keeps either shirtless or in tight tees for most of the film, and that golden girl Amanda Seyfried (" Big Love," "Mamma Mia!") as Savannah, with her Rapunzel locks, dazzling smile and anime eyes. As if that weren't enough sunshine, cinematographer Terry Stacey has saturated every soft-focus frame with even more beauty.

But if anything,"Dear John" proves beyond doubt that too often beauty really is only skin deep.

Based on yet another Nicholas Sparks bestselling romance, the author who gave us "The Notebook" and "Message in a Bottle" (what is it with this guy and paper?), the story begins with a chance encounter on a South Carolina beach sometime in the late '90s when a handsome stranger, John, jumps off a pier to save a . . . purse. "My life is in there," Savannah wails, or at least some priceless cosmetics and hair products, but that's just a guess.

He's a stoic soldier boy on leave visiting his dad, a completely squandered Richard Jenkins whose work is pretty close to flawless most of the time, and she's a beautiful rich girl (is that redundant?) home for spring break, filling her time with beach parties and charity work, I kid you not, she's just that good.

After two blissful weeks filled with a lot of longing looks and lingering kisses and a promise of that forever kind of love, John's off to war and Savannah is back at college. So begins the Dear John, Dear Savannah letters, which provide us with most of the details of their relationship and the requisite separation that any decent romantic drama needs to create that "will they ever get together?" tension.

What we don't really have is an actual film but a very long music video with lots of montages of John and Savannah "moments" as they read their letters in absentia, which means neither the fans nor the foes of "The Notebook" are likely to be satisfied. It's a disappointment coming from the Swedish filmmaker who's given us much better, particularly 1999's critically praised "The Cider House Rules," based on the John Irving novel and starring Tobey Maguire and Michael Caine, and his other Oscar-nominated film, "My Life as a Dog."

Since they don't call the film "Dear John" for nothing, there are many bumps and breakups for the couple to suffer through, what with the distance and his bad temper and her temptations. There are side stories, as there always are, in this case it's autism -- Jenkins as John's high-functioning, coin collecting, emotionally distant, undiagnosed father, and "E.T.'s" Henry Thomas as the single dad in the beach house next door to Savannah, whose son Alan (played by a 6-year-old autistic boy, Braeden Reed) is autistic. To keep the theme going, Savannah dreams of opening a camp for special needs kids after she graduates, as I mentioned, she's just that good.

Meanwhile, John's pre- 9/11 war is set in some unidentified desert country. But just when he's about to finish his tour of duty as a special forces Green Beret and come back home to Savannah as he promised, the towers come down on the TV in the background and the whole duty, country dilemma surfaces, but surprisingly, virtually no emotion.

Indeed, much is made in the production notes about how Hallström and screenwriter Jamie Linden (the solid "We Are Marshall") wanted to stay away from the overly sentimental, which is Hollywood code for "schmaltzy." They do a good job of it, so you can pretty much leave the tissues at home.

Unfortunately, they never fill that void, so there's no real depth or texture to the characters of any sort, sentimental or otherwise, and I say that as someone who can be brought to tears by a Hallmark commercial.

That's yet another waste. The 24-year-old Seyfried has proven acting chops -- particularly as the oldest daughter of the suburban polygamists in HBO's excellent "Big Love" and opposite Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia!" -- and there are a few moments in "Dear John" that hint at something more in Tatum than his chiseled " G.I. Joe" good looks.

The lesson in all of this? If the letter starts with "Dear John," don't bother reading. Just stuff it back in the envelope and return to sender.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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