Are there people who prefer their movies free of conflict? Then Dear John was made for them. Adapted from Nicholas Sparks’ bestseller, this is the story of two attractive, pleasant young people, John and Savannah (Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried), who meet on the beach and fall in love. She’s a good girl, and he used to be a bad boy who got in bar fights — but he’s in the Army now, so that violent streak is pretty well channeled.
Unlike the couple in Sparks’ The Notebook, these two don’t have uptight families or class issues opposing their union. Nor, fans of that movie should take note, do they have passionate, forbidden sex. Their love is more of the moonlit-limbs-entwining-on-a-beach-set-to-acoustic-crooning variety.
But the year is 2001, and John still has a year to serve. “A lot of things can happen in 12 months,” Savannah tells him foreshadowingly. After the inevitable happens on 9/11, John does his patriotic duty by signing up for another tour.
And then … is the pair torn asunder as college student Savannah becomes an ardent antiwar protestor? Does John return from Afghanistan feeling shellshocked and alienated from “normal” American life? Does he become a sociopathic adrenalin junkie like that guy in The Hurt Locker?
No, no and no. While none of those wartime-romance plotlines would be original, they’d be more compelling than what actually happens, which I will leave unrevealed because it’s the closest thing the movie offers to a surprise.
There’s so little drama on screen that viewers may find themselves focusing on extraneous or incongruous details — for instance, the spectacle of E.T.’s best friend looking unrecognizably middle-aged. (Henry Thomas, best known for playing little Elliott, appears here as Seyfried’s neighbor.) Tatum’s Special Forces team has to be the most polite and sensitive, least foul-mouthed group of soldiers seen on film since the Korean War. Then there’s the fact that the twentysomething couple conducts their long-distance romance entirely via … snail mail.
Directed by Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog), Dear John offers pretty beach views, but most of the scenes would be more affecting without Deborah Lurie’s drippy music poured on them. This is the type of movie where moody montage follows romantic montage follows cute montage. Seyfried is as fresh and natural as she is in every movie, and Tatum manages to suggest hints of personality behind the beefcake, but their dialogue keeps the characters generic.
Maybe that’s the whole point of a film like this — the less individualized the lovers are, the easier it is for viewers to “relate.” Fans of meatier drama, though, will find it only in a subplot involving John’s testy relationship with his shut-in dad (Richard Jenkins), a coin collector who appears to be mildly autistic.
This gives the filmmakers another opportunity to remind us how blandly sweet Seyfried’s character is. (She’s inspired to start a horseback-riding camp for autistic kids.) But, more importantly, it gives Jenkins a chance to act. Though his tightly wound, ritual-driven character isn’t on screen much, you may find yourself worrying more about John’s abandonment of his dad — whose fear and loneliness are palpable — than about his estrangement from his girlfriend. In their final scene together, both Jenkins and Tatum show their best, and Dear John momentarily becomes a different, better movie.
What kind of movie? Well, not the kind that resolves a love triangle by killing off one of the rivals (nonviolently, of course). The film is hokum. But Jenkins’ bit is a genuine tearjerker.