Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dear John

Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Scott Porter

Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

When Dear John was released this past February and broke Avatar's seven week stranglehold on the box office, I rolled my eyes, pitying guys across the country who were undoubtedly dragged to the chick flick tearjerker by their girlfriends in exchange for having to sit through the Super Bowl. It seemed like a fair enough trade, until you consider that the possibly more painful Valentine's Day was set to be released the following week. Now that's officially crossing the line. So much so that it could take as many as three Jason Statham movies and whatever Megan Fox has in pre-production for us to eventually even the score.

As someone who never minded "taking one for the team" for the sake of an enlightening review and find these kinds of films unintentionally hilarious, I'm happy to report that Dear John could have actually been a lot worse. At times, parts of it come close to working. It's just unfortunate that from the early going the script has trouble conveying this supposed life-transforming romance in a realistic way. Pivotal early scenes fail to connect like they need to and when the movie does eventually start to find its bearings, it drags on and on, wondering what to do and ending about five times (excluding the unused alternate one) before just fading away. When even the film isn't sure whether it wants the two main characters to be together, how can it expect us to be? But it does earn points for trying. Autism, 9/11, cancer, disabled veterans, Habitat for Humanity and obsessive coin collecting fight for screen time at various points in a screenplay overstuffed with enough drama and hardship to make Precious jealous.

While on leave in Charleston, S.C., Special Forces soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) meets angelic college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) after retrieving her purse off the side of a pier. In just a matter of days they fall in love and Savannah introduces her to her family, as well as her friend and neighbor, Tim (Henry Thomas--Elliott from E.T.!) whose autistic son, Alan (Braeden Reed) thinks the world of her. Much more hesitant is John to bring her home to meet his reclusive father (Richard Jenkins), an avid coin collector who may also be "mildly" autistic. This is according to an unqualified (but likely accurate) diagnosis from Savannah. The whole presentation of this sub-plot is strange, intending to create a false crisis in the relationship early on. But the real crisis arrives when John re-enlists following 9/11 and their feelings are tested long-distance through the mail in the "Dear John" letters of the film's title.

The first quarter of the picture spends more time talking about autism than it does exploring the actual relationship between these two which isn't exactly presented in the most mature way possible, especially when you consider it mostly revolves around games of hide and seek and frolicking in rain storms. That it feels more like a case of pre-teen puppy love than two young adults in a meaningful relationship is a nagging flaw that taints most of the film. Had the early scenes contained more substance and the writing been stronger, the separation that comes later would mean more. Instead, the characterizations of Savannah and John are lazily phoned in to meet the functional needs of the script. She's the saint and he's the bad boy with a quick temper. That's the full extent of it.

Tatum's been accused of being too wooden, but his approach is appropriate for this kind of role and I appreciate him not playing it as a lovelorn wimp. His character was at least strong and no-nonsense and now in his third starring role as a soldier (following Stop-Loss and G.I. Joe), he's believable in the war scenes, which are surprisingly well-handled. He'll never be accused of being the most charismatic actor around and while the chief motivation behind his casting was to attract female moviegoers, what he does in this works as well as it can given the limitations imposed on him by the writing. That statement holds doubly true for Richard Jenkins work as Mr. Tyree. Autism may be used as a cheap emotional ploy in the screenplay but he does everything possible to avoid us noticing that with a subtle, believable portrayal of someone who could be suffering from the disease. The sub-plot involving his history with John and the coin collecting was more compelling than anything having to do with the romance. Some may question what an accomplished Academy Award nominated actor is doing in a movie like this I commend him for taking a thankless role and trying to make something of it. Like everyone else though, his best efforts are undercut by dumb screenwriting decisions.

Seyfried once again rises above mediocre material and is at least given a little more support from Tatum than she was from Megan Fox in the lifeless Jennifer's Body. Possessing a natural charisma and luminous likability that commands the screen, she almost sells the ridiculous, out of left field decisions Savannah makes in the final third of the film. When an actress has headlines two big hits the size of this and Mamma Mia! and even comes out of bad movies gaining more respect for being the best thing in them, you could possibly consider it a coincidence. But I don't get that impression with her. She's obviously worked hard to transcend her TV roots and bring substance to flimsy parts like this that are often undeserving of her efforts.

The story oddly gains some traction when the two are separated but then proceeds to squander that brief flash of potential as it enters its bizarre third act, employing a "YEARS LATER" flash forward gimmick that yields silly results. A key twist involving how Savannah has moved on since his deployment is especially ridiculous and will have many scratching their heads in disbelief. I know I was. This was right around the same time I lost patience with all the false endings that deny viewers exactly what they came to see. Even when the script finally decides what direction to take, it's too late. If you're going to commit to making a sappy chick flick at least know to finish it right and send audiences home happy.

It's a shame the picture feels like it was manufactured on an assembly line because it looks good and the performers were trying. But when a movie is supposed to be a romance and the central relationship doesn't work, that's a major fail. Having obviously not read the Nicholas Sparks' novel on which this is based, I don't know how far the movie's many start-and-stop endings in the last twenty minutes veer from the source material. The final onscreen product indicates something decided on by a bickering studio committee that couldn't get on the same page for a conclusion. It really misses the mark in attaining the same guilty pleasure cheesiness of other Sparks adaptations like The Notebook and A Walk to Remember. Instead, it only serves to remind us that Amanda Seyfried is a talented actress who can now look forward to starring in movies substantially better than Dear John.

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