There's a place in the cinematic world for a good old-fashioned wartime romance such as Dear John, a film that is better than what might think in the hands of director Lasse Hallstrom, a director who has never been one to shy away from unabashedly romantic and emotional cinema and who, for better and worse, seems remarkably in touch with the thoughts and feels that serve as the foundation for this film and Nicholas Sparks' source material.
If not for the unfortunate miscasting of Channing Tatum (Step Up, Fighting), may very well have become the weepy, heartfelt love story/heartbreak story of the year. Amanda Seyfried, whom I'm convinced is a good actress simply waiting for the right material, has the misfortune of attempting to create a convincing chemistry with an actor for whom emotional revelation is expressed in the form of a mopey eyebrow.
Savannah (Seyfried) is a pretty young thing on vacation on the South Carolina Coast when she meets John (Tatum), a Special Forces soldier on leave and preparing to go back for one more year. The two tippy-toe around the entire dating thing in a way that fairly well resembles the idea of courting as presented on The Andy Griffith Show, but when push comes to shove they fall in love and and spend the next few months falling even deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper in love.
Then, the whole 9/11 thing happens. How terribly inconvenient for our young lovers!
Suffice it to say that our love story will experience peaks and valleys, winding journeys and weepy goodbyes. If you really have no idea how this all ends, then you've never heard of Nicholas Sparks. I would say the same for Lasse Hallstrom, but I have this strange feeling that most Nicholas Sparks fans actually haven't heard of Hallstrom.
Despite the Hallmark card that is Dear John, Amanda Seyfried is positive illuminating as Savannah, a typical Sparks character with shiny virtues, unquestionable values, a solid core of goodness and a forever romantic spirit no matter what life throws at her. The big screen used to love to give us these types of characters, but these days most war flicks are more apt to explore political issues or global impact rather than those pesky little things called human emotions. While Seyfried doesn't quite convince as the more "mature" Savannah, her performance largely is much of what gives Dear John its emotional appeal.
Channing Tatum, on the other hand, never quite sells himself as a soldier/sensitive soul capable of writing such weepy love letters let alone actually feeling such weepy emotions. It's a sad statement when the performance of a supporting player, Henry Thomas (Yes, THAT Henry Thomas from E.T.), is so well grounded that he feels like a better match for the emotionally vibrant Savannah.
Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) is nicely cast as John's father, a quirky man and potentially undiagnosed autism, a cause of particular importance to Savannah as we will learn repeatedly throughout the film.
Production values support the unabashed romanticism present here with Deborah Lurie's original music amping up the emotional call to arms with sufficient gravitas and Terry Stacey's camera work seemingly enamored with Tatum's chiseled good looks and, at times, turning Seyfried's Savannah into an angel in flesh minus the wings.
Dear John is the kind of film most women will love and most men will deny they've ever seen. It's the kind of film that almost never wins the recommendations of the film critics, but it may very well sweep its way into the hearts of an America burned out by winter and seeking an escape from all the action, violence and cynicism currently in theatres. While the performance of Channing Tatum drags the film down, there's a place in the cinematic world for films like Dear John that remember what it's like to fall in love and how hard it is to actually stay in love.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic