DEAR JOHN, 2010
A romantic drama about a soldier (Tatum) who falls for a co-ed (Seyfried) while he's home on leave. Their relationship is tested in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, an event that causes him to re-enlist for service.
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No one would deny that film is an inherently visual medium. Character, plot and dialog may be the bedrock that makes a movie work, but the visuals are the funnel their stories reach us through. It's not an accident that many of the best directors come from an artistic or photographic background; the ability to think visually and produce beautiful images is essential. It's not surprising that most of the best films have exquisite set design and lighting that would make Rembrandt green with envy.
But it can go too far. In the quest for perfect images, it is not at all unusual for filmmakers to keep going past their sets and start casting their films like they would choose a prop, eyeing their leads for proportion and symmetry and who cares if their dialog always sounds like they're reading it off of a cue card. I'm not naive enough to question why successful actors are necessarily attractive, but when that becomes the determining factor in their place in a film, you are setting yourself up for disaster.
Case in point: "Dear John."
An adaption of Nicholas Sparks' novel, "Dear John" is already at a disadvantage before the first actor appears on screen. Sparks stories are usually contraptions designed to deliver mild heartache and banal characterization (and "Dear John" is no exception) but he doesn't exactly have the copyright on that particular problem. Hollywood loves nothing so much as easy emotion, because it is so easy to sell, which certainly explains why Sparks has found such a comfortable niche there.
The telling difference that film can bring to these sorts of things is in the humanization of the words, in the way people actually speak the dialog. A talented (or even journeyman) actor can add layers to the most simple phrase or sentence, creating the appearance of depth where none really exists.
Looks don't necessarily have anything to do with that ability, but if you cast for looks alone without really considering the rest, that's how you end up spending an hour and 45 minutes with the human totem pole that is Channing Tatum.
In what is (sadly) the greatest dramatic challenge he has yet faced, Tatum stars as John, a young Special Forces soldier who, while spending a rest leave with his father in on Charleston's beaches, meets the woman (Amanda Seyfried) who is probably the love of his life.
He certainly looks the part, but how can you possibly feel anything for or care about a person who says everything as if he were reading a book report in front of his class?
The son of a semi-autistic obsessed with coin collecting (Richard Jenkins), John has developed his problems in communicating with others, keeping most people at a distance and breaking out into violence when situations become too complex or frustrating. Despite that handicap, it looks like college student Savannah (Seyfried) might be able to provide the same structure for his emotions that the military has done for his violent impulses. With something to look forward to he begins counting the days till his enlistment is up and he can finally get on with his life, passing the time through letters back and forth to Savannah as they desperately try to keep their relationship alive.
And then 9/11 happens.
"Dear John" wouldn't be a markedly better film if it didn't sentimentalize the terror attacks of 9/11, but it certainly doesn't help that it does. The thing is, it probably can't help itself. "Dear John" is built on mawkishness and it brings everything it touches down to that level. It rubs the metaphor of coins and coin collecting so deeply into the audience face you're sure to have a welt by the time the movie's over.
Even then, something could have been salvaged. There are some real adult issues at play, even if they're only there for melodrama, and good actors have done more with less. But neither Seyfried or Tatum is really up to the challenge, and unfortunately the entire film is built around them. Most of Seyfried's dialog comes out shrill, but that's not too different from a lot of young actors and can be dealt with through experience.
But the emotional depths of Nicholas Sparks seem to be completely beyond Tatum, and in a story that's entirely built on John's internal turmoil and pain, that's fatal. Maybe there is a director that can get a good performance out of him, but Lasse Halstrom ("Chocolat") doesn't seem to be the man. He's made a good looking film, but it's even shallower than its source material, which is hard to believe.
"Dear John" is a romance novel with blank pages; all we're left with is a pretty dust jacket.