Directed by: Lasse Hallström. Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins. Runtime: 1h 48 min. Released: February 5, 2010.
I don’t consider myself a fan of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but there have been 11 big-screen adaptations of his novels and I’ve seen eight of them. That number includes today’s review, Dear John, as it wouldn’t be a “29 Days of Romance” marathon without a review of a Nicholas Sparks movie.
The film is set in 2001 where John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is on leave from the Army in Charleston, North Carolina, where he meets the kind-hearted college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) and sparks (Nicholas Sparks?) fly.
The part of the film that works best for me is Richard Jenkins as John’s father, simply called Mr. Tyree, and it would be nice if he had a real character name. He has Asperger’s Syndrome and the character doesn’t have much depth, but his hobby of coin collecting is charming. He specifically collects “mules,” imperfect coins that were minted improperly. The writing uses it to say something about the film’s imperfect characters, too, and the best scene of the film for me is the story of Mr. Tyree’s favourite coin.
It tells how he and his son John shared a love for coins, but John’s passion for it went away. This aspect is sort-of heartbreaking because it’s such a big passion for his father and then they had nothing to talk about. It’s not explained why John stopped liking coins, but perhaps it’s because it was all they talked about.
Savannah’s developed as a compassionate girl who wants to work with autistic children. A conflict in the film is that John’s offended when Savannah notices that his father is on the spectrum, and he seems offended because Mr. Tyree was never diagnosed. The film’s use of the R-word to describe the situation also didn’t sit right with me because it feels like such an outdated word and someone who wants to work with autistic people wouldn’t use that word, even if the film is set in 2001.
It doesn’t take away so much from the character, but the Savannah’s compassion seems to be the extent of her as a person, and the compassion’s limited in that word. Anyway, I think Seyfried plays her well for the most part. Rounding out the “core” cast is Henry Thomas as Savannah’s next-door neighbor Tim. Tim has a kid named Alan, who has autism, so that’s another reason Savannah wants to work with autistic children. Tim’s used as a way to develop John as a character, as well. At one point, John advises Tim to tell Alan that his mom isn’t ever coming back, since John’s mom left and he spent too much time waiting for her to come back.
Other than that and John’s relationship with his father, that’s the bulk of his development. There’s little to him other than also simply wanting to fight for his country. John seems like a brick wall with an anger problem. I legitimately like Channing Tatum but the character is just so boring to me.
The couple’s chemistry is never amazing but it’s passable. Their initial two-week love affair is boring, but I liked the letter exchange portion of the film, and there’s a period of about 20 minutes during this where I thought the film was charming. Though, the passage of time during this letter correspondence is handled poorly.
I think these scenes are well-directed by Lasse Hallström as sort-of montage scenes showing their everyday life. Obviously, John’s at war and the only interesting thing Savannah does is visit Mr. Tyree. I think that’s when that’s when the film is at its most charming, when John, Mr. Tyree and Savannah are together. Jenkins is the glue that held this film together for me and the character is perhaps the glue for their relationship, as well.
The story is run-of-the-mill so there’s little holding it together in that respect, as all Nicholas Sparks films feel the same. The writing by Jamie Linden for this film is dull but if the source material isn’t that strong in the first place, it’s hard to make a strong film. Still, there’s one key emotional moment in this film where the order of the scenes and vagueness makes it lose emotional impact.
As for Hallström’s direction, there are many awkward directorial choices here. This is most notable at an airport where John and Savannah reunite. John lifts her up and they’re making out and we see a pervy-looking guy in the background taking off his belt, staring at them. It’s off-putting until I remembered they’re in an airport and he’s taking his belt off to go through security, not for other reasons… And that seemed to be the implication for a second there. I can’t tell if that’s on bad directing or bad editing that it made it to the final cut.
The film also falls apart in the third act, from story to direction. I don’t think the conflict in the film is ever strong but the third act has a story direction that I don’t think is completely necessary. It made me lose interest in the characters, even though I was never particularly invested in the first place. The chemistry just becomes worse, as does the drama, acting and direction.
This is the point of Dear John where it truly does not feel “directed” as there’s a scene here where Hallstrom would have gotten another take if he still cared about the project. In the scene, Amanda Seyfried does a “surprise face” that is some of the weakest acting I’ve seen from her. Tatum isn’t much better in this scene and it’s like no one wanted to actually act on this day of shooting. It didn’t seem like anyone cared and they just wanted to finish the film. As an audience member, I didn’t care, either.