As objective as I try to be going into movies, I can’t really say I expect much from Nicholas Sparks adaptations, which seem to run the gamut from beloved movies that I simply don’t see the appeal of (The Notebook) to total crap (Nights in Rodanthe). Sparks’ books (like those of Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer) are adapted because of their sheer popularity, not their literary quality. But, then again, with their straightforward storytelling, predictable stock of plot elements and interchangeable characters, and breezy readability, Sparks’ books come across as readied for cinematic adaptation in a way that great literature can’t. Nothing profound is lost in transition from page to screen. That being said, Lasse Hallström’s Dear John is, for better or for worse, everything you’d expect from a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.
Dear John opens in Spring 2001 in a coastal South Carolina town, where John Tyree (Channing Tatum), an introverted Special Forces officer on leave, meets college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) while she visits friends during spring break. The two spend time together over a two-week period and quickly fall in love. John is scheduled to return to the army for a year-long tour and Savannah is to return to school, but John promises to stay in the US for good upon his return and they agree to correspond through writing letters in the meantime. Their plans change, predictably, with the events of the following September, which force John to stay abroad indefinitely and complicate their long-distance relationship.
First, the good. Hallström does give Dear John a pedigree unrealized in previous adaptations by a middleweight like Nick Cassavetes or a director-for-hire like George C. Wolfe. Part of me feels like Hallström should instead be doing the better kinds of films that have displayed his ability to tackle all types of material and his especially adept handling of actors, from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to The Cider House Rules to the wholly underrated The Hoax. Then again, Hallström’s talents have made Dear John in some respects better than it has any right to be, and the end result is a mixed bag of elements that work and others that don’t.
It seems in the first thirty minutes of Dear John that Hallström tries to thrust a naturalistic acting style upon his cast, allowing them to possess what comes across as a semi-improvisatory-sounding delivery of what was no doubt specifically scripted dialogue (adapted from the novel by Jamie Linden). He allows his actors to use all the “uh,” “ums,” and unfinished sentences that take normal place in everyday conversation, but this comes across awkwardly onscreen, especially when the acting style works in direct opposition to the polished, antirealist, Lifetime movie stylistic presentation of the film (It should be noted that Dear John, in just about every respect, doesn’t take place on any plane of reality, especially in its tame, almost Puritanical view of young sexuality that would give relief to the middle-aged mothers of Sparks’ demographic who see Gossip Girl as culture’s moral apocalypse). Thankfully, this approach to acting is dropped for the most part after the first act, with the deliberative prose of the letter-writing montages providing a natural breaking point from everyday stuttering.
Tatum comes across quite dryly throughout the film. The delivery of his dialogue ranges between earnest and insincere, and I was never 100% sold on his performance. Yet he is allowed one affecting moment with his father (Richard Jenkins) that could’ve come across as the most trite and tear-grabbing moment in the film, but Channing and Jenkins are emotionally genuine enough here to be convincing. Seyfried is good, showing the modest charisma that justifies her quickly rising stardom. There are some moments, especially late in a scene between her and Tatum at a dinner table towards the end of the film, where Seyfried’s acting works brilliantly in conjunction with Hallström’s attempted naturalism, yet these moments are quickly squelched by the sweeping music and melodrama expected from films like these. It is in this respect that I wish Seyfried and Tatum’s performances were given the opportunity to breathe. The actors, however, do achieve a level of convincing chemistry, even if that chemistry is built upon the fact that they are attracted to each other solely because they happen to both be very attractive. The brilliant Richard Jenkins, as Tatum’s reclusive and inarticulate father, is the only one who truly sells his performance throughout.
As far as the later twists and turns of the story goes, they are (as expected) shamelessly trite and superficial, more concerned with the tugging of heart strings than the natural trajectory of characters. Major events in the lives of supporting characters are used as a means for Tatum and Seyfried to intersect rather than events inherent with profound meaning for the lead characters themselves. This somehow works in the logic of the Nicholas Sparks novel, but if it weren’t for the sweeping music and pretty actors these characters would come across, when really stopping to think about it, as cheap, selfish, and opportunistic (unfortunately, I can’t speak any more specifically on the plot twist I’m referring to without spoiling anything). Also, John’s stints with the army in the Middle East are the weakest moments of the film. Never do we get a sense of what John actually does, where (in terms of time and place) in the history of the War on Terror he is, and the execution of protocol here seems drastically inaccurate and uninformed. I’m not expecting The Hurt Locker, but we as an audience deserve a better sense of John’s work and life abroad beyond context-free montage after context-free montage.
Dear John is not a bad film, but it’s not an especially good one. The film gives hints of something better than what we typically expect of this demographic-specific fare, but Hallström’s vision fails to be realized as he never achieves the balance between the naturalism he seeks through performance and the suffocating simplicity, clichés, and silly dialogue typical of films like these. Ultimately, such a balance, I’m afraid, isn’t possible, as Dear John could only potentially be a Nicholas Sparks film or a Lasse Hallström film, never both.
The Upside: A higher pedigree of filmmaking, some good performances, and natural style that would have worked without the Lifetime polish.
The Downside: Channing Tatum is too dry, the movie is all heartstrings and no depth, a lack of balance.
On the Side: This is the first full screenplay from Jamie Linden who got a story credit on We Are Marshall.