Written by: Kit Bowen, Special to CC2K
Not even Lasse Hallstrom can prevent this from being a pale imitation of The Notebook.
Stop chasing the magic and romance of The Notebook, please. Readers may want to bury themselves into one Nicholas Sparks romantic novel after another, but the movie adaptation pinnacle has been reached. Every other Sparks' movie pales in comparison to The Notebook, including Dear John, which can't elevate itself from the same, repetitive cycle.
Dear John has one saving grace, however – Channing Tatum. At least from this woman's perspective, he is all THAT and a bag of chips. Good lord, he could make falling in love with a pineapple sexy if he wanted to. Of course, in this scenario, he gets to share his incredibly charismatic, soft-spoken demeanor and soulful eyes with Big Love's Amanda Seyfried, who handles the affection with aplomb. Set once again in the Carolinas, South this time, these two meet cute one summer afternoon at the beach, when Tatum's John fishes Seyfried's Savannah's fallen purse out of the ocean. Then for the next two wonderful weeks, they court, kiss and fall passionately in love. But to create the TENSION, the romance has to be put on hold when John returns to active duty as a soldier in Special Forces, and Savannah goes back to college. They promise to write a bunch of letters to one another, however, which makes for compelling drama. Not really. Seriously, are written letters that much more romantic? Sparks seems to think so.
Complications soon arise. First of all, Sept. 11 happens, which keeps John in the service longer than he wanted – and the distance starts to tear the young lovers apart. The quintessential “Dear John” letter eventually comes from Savannah, and while John accepts it at first and pours his heart and soul into serving his country for several years, circumstances bring him back to South Carolina to confront his emotions – and Savannah – and find out what went wrong. Oddly, there is a twist – something you don't expect, but it's also something you find rather hard to believe. Still, you'd like to see these two crazy kids work it out.
Director Lasse Hallstrom usually has a good handle on this kind of material, with films such as Chocolat, Cider House Rules, and my personal favorite, My Life as a Dog. Yet somehow he's missed the mark with Dear John, rarely grabbing the audience's imagination and keeping us a bit at arm's length to the romance of it all. The young leads make up for a lot of it simply by being so pretty and adorable together, as does the lush South Carolina coastline, but when neither the location or the actors aren't on screen, the movie drags. The only other bright spot is the always wonderful Richard Jenkins as John's single father, a man whose own social and communicative skills are severely stunted (there's a reason, but I won't give it away) yet who has tried to raise and love his son the best way he can.
I wanted very much to sigh and get all dreamy over Dear John – and Tatum ALMOST makes it happen for me – but ultimately, I couldn't get past Sparks' customary paint-by-number formula.
Kit Bowen is an entertainment journalist and movie critic. She was formerly the Managing Editor for Hollywood.com and currently blogs for her site TheMovieKit.com.