Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dear John

"You, are the dumbest smart person I have ever met in my life!"

Two teens meet and have a whirlwind romance, but a summer fling ends up affecting the rest of their lives.

I must admit that I haven't had the best history with Nicholas Sparks novels, and that that history is even worse with their adaptations. From the atrociously sentimental A Walk To Remember, to the purely un-effecting Nights in Rodanthe, I'd found that as far as I was concerned all the doors to Sparks' fantasies were marked expressly with the sign: "Enter at your own risk"; with that risk usually being quite grave.
And then I saw Dear John. Of all the Sparks inspired films I've seen (Between knowing a lot of girls and seeing a lot movies that's all of them by the way) Dear John is the only one that seems to have a sense of things more important than romance. And yes, there are things more important than romance. Not only does this movie contain story lines that exist outside the lovebirds in question, they are the more poignant plot points (and I'm not just talking about 9/11).
In a very real -though not all encompassing- way, Dear John seems to explore how two separate lives brought together can interact. How people can affect each others lives- not just their moods; though don't get me wrong, there's plenty of that too. Plenty of sentimental, romance novel fodder (like female characters named Savanna for instance) to satisfy the die-hards who came to smile and cry. So know that I'm not calling this movie a bar elevator, I'm just giving it points for taking the risk of alienating those who hate all that pesky self-awareness ruining their romance movie.
In terms of performances, Dear John offers little to any roles outside that of the title character and the aforementioned heroine- though in general the supporting roles are decently filled. As for the leads, Amanda Seyfried offers a cute but unremarkable performance as the young innocent Savannah, only to return with a much more convincing show in the third act. Overall I say she does the best with what she's given- which really isn't much. And then there's Channing Tatum... I never really imagined myself saying this, but in Dear John I'd say he does enough to a least open discussion on him maybe being more than just a pretty face and muscular shoulders. There are moments (and I emphasize the use of the word moments) where his performance is convincing- even enjoyable. Offset of course by everything around those moments, which is mostly bearable and only occasionally horrid; such as the "Tell me what to do" scene audiences have been subjected to with every cut of the trailer.
Even with its flaws, Tatum's performance comes through in a way he'd yet to achieve before. I don't know where credit for the change is due. Maybe it was direction from Lasse Hallstrom (sorry Lasse, I don't know how to make an Umlaut) who's certainly no stranger to drama with titles like What's Eating Gilbert Grape and An Unfinished Life under his belt. Or maybe he just realized that this was the kind of name and money backed vehicle that could really progress his career. I don't know. One thing it certainly wasn't was the often ham-fisted writing. Though the movie survives despite it, not unlike We Are Marshall -also penned by scribe Jamie Linden, who's over the top approach was also saved from itself by the strength of it's performances.
By far, Dear John's strongest on screen attribute is Richard Jenkins, who nails his role as John's father with the kind of thorough-ease that I've come to expect from him. They say the best players aren't just good, they make the rest of the team better. Could this acting juggernaut (bitch!) have been the element that elevated the entire movie? OK well, even if that seems like a stretch- his performance as this pivotal character anchors the piece, adding all that poignancy mentioned before. He may not have elevated the cast, but his performance and his characters storyline elevate the movie as a whole.
So there you have it. Dear John was, to sum up, not terrible. Which is a huge compliment considering it's brethren and the man writing this review. Anything more is debatable. To say Dear John transcends it's genre would be light years more than a bit much. In truth, I'd say it takes steps towards doing what every romance really should have been doing already- telling more of a story than the purists require to get their tears and run. It's a movie with definite flaws, and it lays far from the best and the brightest of the day- even of it's market. Though I will say, that it is easily the best of the Sparks series. Though being the best Sparks' adaptation is kind of like being the best dressed bag-lady: your title doesn't really say much for the big picture, and the competition really wasn't all that stiff.
Watcher X says: "Loved it."
Reel Deal Recommends:
Jennifer's Body: I know what your thinking, but give it a shot. I bet it surprises you.
Stop-Loss: I guess if I have to pick one for Channing Tatum this would be it...
Burn After Reading: So hard to choose. See also the series Six Feet Under.

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