Friday, November 5, 2010

Predictability, Unsteamy Sex Scene, And Stiff Acting Hamper Dear John.

The Good: Decent casting, Richard Jenkins’ performance
The Bad: Absolutely predictable, Failure of actors to infuse the weight of years, Lack of spark
The Basics: Despite a great performance from Richard Jenkins, Dear John is slow, not terribly romantic and completely predictable.

Earlier this year, I dragged my wife to a screening and for a while afterward, things were pretty rocky for us. My wife absolutely hates romance movies, while I am generally more indifferent to them. Our reasons are the same; they tend to be predictable, formulaic and have little variance within the genre. She hates how almost every one involves a guy going for a skinny blonde at all costs. So, taking her to see Dear John, I’m not sure what she thought she was getting into, but for weeks after, she seems pretty cheesed with me.

That said, Dear John is one of the latest cinematic adaptations of a book by Nicholas Sparks. Dear John follows in the tradition of Sparks’ other books made cinematic romances, The Notebook and Nights In Rodanthe. Sadly, though, Dear John offers the viewer little new from the mind of Nicholas Sparks and the film starts with an utterly formulaic beginning, develops into a slow middle and finishes with a completely unconvincing final act. And, because of my principles with not ruining movies for potential viewers (even the bad ones), I will be unable to go into the worst portions of the film as they would reveal far too much about the film’s end. That said, this is a pure review of Dear John the movie; I have not read the book upon which it was based.

John Tyree is an Army Special Forces soldier who is on leave from Germany in early 2001 when he is looking out at the ocean. When Savannah Curtis and her friends come out onto the same pier, her purse gets knocked into the ocean and John jumps in after it. Following her home for a beer, John and Savannah begin a conversation and they spend virtually all of their time together for John’s two weeks of leave. Savannah and John go out to dinner and soon, John introduces her to his (probably) autistic, coin-collecting father. After singing him a song, it’s love between Savannah and John and when the two weeks are up, they promise to write one another and John promises to return in a year.

Unfortunately for their young love, the September 11, 2001 attacks come and, despite a visit back to the U.S. where he gets to see Savannah and make love with her, John goes with his unit and reenlists for another tour of duty. While in Afghanistan, though, the letters stop and John, hurt, puts more distance between him and Savannah.

One supposes it was inevitable; the love story where the September 11, 2001 attacks actually force the main conflict of the film, but Dear John does it in the most mundane of ways. John loses serious interest as a protagonist when he blindly re-ups with his unit. No, apparently, even the love of a skinny blonde chick isn't enough to save men from the peer pressure of the military. If that came out as snarky, it is; men in Dear John are generally the stereotypical men. John is tough, violent at a moment's notice and does not prioritize love over his sense of duty (he also has very little in the way of a neck, which is difficult to watch for almost two hours). His father is emotionally inaccessible and raised him alone, but John has little patience for his condition and actually takes offense when Savannah suggests he might be autistic. Of course, women (or rather, woman) fare equally poorly in Dear John. Savannah is musical, idealistic, passionate and poor with money (that comes up in the final portion of the movie, so I won't elaborate, but it does have to do with following her dream).

But even more ridiculous is the way women at the screening actually seemed to love the movie. Savannah, who decides after spending time with Mr. Tyree that she might want to become a Special Education teacher, insinuates that Mr. Tyree could be autistic (a diagnosis she acknowledges is not professional, but based upon living next to and working with an autistic neighbor for many years). At that point, John leaps on her with verbal anger and she completely backtracks. He undermines her confidence and sense of judgment and the women swoon. No wonder relations between men and women are so screwed up!

The character arcs are generally predictable, but they tend to service the plot, which is a very formulaic: characters meet, fall in love, have a serious obstacle, resolve the challenge(s) story. The only moment of surprise comes in who Savannah finds herself leaving John for while he is deployed in the war zone. Given that the final letter (for most of the movie) comes surprisingly early in the film, this is not a spoiler; most of the movie belabors the consequences after a six year jump while the protagonists are apart.

Therein lies the biggest problem with Dear John as well. The acting does not carry the weight of those six years realistically. Savannah and John were together for two weeks and wrote to one another for about a year. But after six years apart, with all Savannah has struggled with, Amanda Seyfried fails to convince us of the reality of her character's struggles. Despite being married, in love and struggling with someone else, the moment she sees John, it’s pretty much game over. Similarly, Channing Tatum, who plays John, fails to make it realistic that he would want to reconnect with Savannah. After all, years and years of having sex with hookers, (one would assume) should have dampened his memories of two weeks with a skinny blonde who scorned him. Not in Dear John.

That said, Richard Jenkins gives an amazing performance as Mr. Tyree. He plays the autistic father perfectly awkwardly with a brilliant sense of body language and his is the performance to watch. . .

. . . if you have to watch the movie anyway. Dear John is predictable, mistakes control for romance and the lone sex scene is filmed so conservatively as to gut any sense of passion from it. This is easy to pass by.

For other romance movies, please visit my reviews of:
Valentine's Day
Couples Retreat
Going The Distance


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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