Dear John

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 2, 2010

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The recent passing of junk-romance king and Love Story perpetrator Erich Segal right before the arrival of a movie culled from the shelves of Nicholas Sparks is the kind of happenstance you’d see in the works of either author. That is, with the possible exception of Dear John, Sparks’ 2006 novel about a soldier and a goody-goody caught in one of the author’s borderline sadistic amourous roundelays. Can’t vouch for the novel, but the movie version is, by this writer’s standards, almost ... subtle. You’d think a movie invoking both the Real America and the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan would go for the jugular, but it could only ever soil a pocket tissue pack at most.

Serial on-screen warrior Channing Tatum (Stop-Loss, G.I. Joe) plays the title character, a chiseled Special Forces grunt who spends his leave falling stupid in love with Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a straight-edge ball of wonderful who seeks to open a horse camp for autistic kids. The era of their tryst is kept secret from us, all so the filmmakers can sideswipe us with 9/11. (Though the film itself is apolitical, save a brief knock at our shitty health care system.) These two crazy kids are torn apart so Savannah proposes her mealy-mouthed beloved keep up hand-written correspondence, so they’ll “be with each other all the time even though we’re not with each other at all.”

What follows sticks to the usual Sparks formula of teary deaths, lengthy times apart and sudden fatal diseases. But at least thanks to director Lasse Hallstrôm—who once tackled classier best sellers like John Irving and E. Annie Proulx—it never gets particularly brutal or creative in its manipulation. Even their moony letters, while not exactly John Keats and Fanny Browne, are distinctly lacking in gory, hold-back-the-vomit-as-I-write-this-down howlers. Never quite achieving crassness, either, is a subplot concerning John’s mildly autistic pop (Richard Jenkins), while two major deaths are handled with understatement. Hell, even the improbably cast central pair are both—not just Seyfried!—better than they have to be.

And so Dear John is faintly tolerable and, therefore, something of a failure. Empircally speaking, A Walk to Remember and The Notebook are garbage, but at least they satisfied their designated audiences (weepy girls, wise-acres seeking derisive laughing fits). This, however, is neither all-out crap nor worthy enough to appeal to higher thinking. Shamelessness fail. C-

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