Dear John
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried
Rated PG-13 for some
sensuality and violence
1 hr., 42 min.

By some miracle, everything went just right in The Notebook. Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling (who fell in love for real during the production) were able to breathe some life into the very tired “poor, upright Southern boy falls in love with well-to-do girl” plotline. The director, Nick Cassavetes, was able to rise above the maudlin Nicholas Sparks source material — even James Garner turned in an unexpected Oscar-worthy performance. The result was a tightly paced, lovingly filmed title designed to appeal to both older and younger generations — remarkably, it did.
Now imagine that all the good parts of that film are missing.

Imagine that Gosling and McAdams were never cast, and instead two photogenic stars with no chemistry or real acting chops had to carry the film. Instead of Cassavetes, who managed to make the novel seem like it was a literary classic, you have a director who has no vision. He turns what could be a more interesting and nuanced story than The Notebook into a cringe-worthy melodrama. Even worse, the audience leaves the movie unsatisfied (breaking the cardinal rule of a syrupy romance film), and ends up spending the car ride home questioning every stupid, illogical decision the two leads make.

And that’s Dear John: a film that has inexplicably ended Avatar’s monstrous seven-week run as No. 1 at the box office.

There is no subtlety in this film’s universe. It uses 9/11’s crashing towers as the key plot point, telegraphs all the characters’ intentions and desires, forces them to make schizophrenic decisions and relies solely on snail mail to keep the main characters in touch. (What is this, 1942?) The result is an overly sanitized, Southern fairy tale that is as disconnected and disjointed as is an unsettling dream. To put it lightly, this movie makes Ben Affleck’s Pearl Harbor (an infinitely more enjoyable, if campy, film) seem like a modern masterpiece.

The plot revolves around a stone-faced Green Beret (Channing Tatum) who, on leave from the military in the spring of 2001, finds himself in a whirlwind romance with Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) — a Southern college girl who refuses to drink, smoke, curse or easily fall in love. Needless to say, Tatum is enough to make her swoon, and they end up sharing their first kiss in the midst of an unexpected rain storm.

Soon enough, Tatum has to return to the service and is faced with the prospect of spending several more months without his lovely Savannah. So they write and write (to be fair, in his first deployment only snail mail is allowed for “security” purposes). The whole midsection of the movie consists of Tatum or Seyfried voiceovers juxtaposed with their characters looking fondly into the distance, or at the moon — no doubt dreaming of each other. This state of perpetual writing exists until suddenly it doesn’t.

In the end, one astonishingly stupid decision ruins the whole romance. If you’re curious about what it is, don’t be. It’s not only artificial, but it doesn’t seem to make sense in the movie’s universe, either. (Spoiler hint: don’t write off any of the other male characters in the movie.)

The only bright spot in the film is Richard Jenkins, who plays the autistic father to Channing Tatum’s soldier. Jenkins seems to grasp the nuance and subtle consequences of the often-serious condition. It’s just too bad that he seems to be performing in an entirely different movie altogether.       

erik@vcreporter.com