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Dear John

Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Cast: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Braeden Reed

(US DVD: 25 May 2010; UK DVD: 23 Aug 2010)

Review [5.Feb.2010]

Dear Nicholas Sparks,


I’ve been sitting here staring at this blank screen for the last two hours, sighing wistfully to myself through dewy eyes, wondering how I’m ever going to write all this, everything I’m feeling about our semi-torrid summer romance. Since I can’t bear to think about any of it for more than a minute without falling into a nostalgic regret-tinged swoon over what might have been (had not semi-tragic circumstances not conspired to keep us apart), I’ll get to the point. I owe you that much (but not enough to actually tell you this in person, or on the phone).


Oh Nicholas, I hate so much to say this, but I have to be honest – we have to break up! It’s not you – it’s me… Er, actually no, really, it’s you, after all. Regardless, I can’t keep up this charade anymore and I can’t pretend that things will ever be other than they are now – and things are not good.


Things were good in the beginning, though, or so I thought. I fell for your sensitive sentimentality, your old-fashioned style of romance, your traditional notions of loyalty and moral strength in the face of adversity. I enjoyed all those stolen moments with your star-crossed, fate-torn lovers, who were so prone to hokey courtships, passionate rain-storm soaked kisses, and scandalous pre-marital sex in rambling old Southern houses. I misted up over their small tragedies and inevitable illnesses. I found solace and hope in your belief in the triumph of true love over the entropic persistence of war and time and memory-loss and cancer. I really loved how you stuck to your epistolary guns, insisting everyone write each other letters – actual hand written letters. It warmed my Romantic, neo-Luddite heart.


Yes, I fell for all these things the first time – A Walk to Remember.  Oh, I do remember. Then, things really caught fire with the wonderfully unironic, sentimental overload of The Notebook. That’s when we were our best, but then cracks started to appear in the slightly more ridiculous, histrionic-plagued Nights in Rodanthe. Now, I fear, what was once so fresh and invigorating has become rote and routine and, well, just plain boring with Dear John and hence, this “Dear John” to you.


There is nothing demonstrably different in Dear John that separates it from your other adapted films, Nicholas. Superficially, everything lines up and that’s the problem. If the notes are the same, the music is different, and lacking in vigor. Things never come to a giddy head, the pieces are all lying flung about and never cohere. In fact, some of them are just plain out of place and unnecessary, and even offensive at times.


We are just going through the motions here, and you know it. John (stiff-jawed Channing Tatum) meets cute with Savannah (willowy Amanda Seyfried) on the South Carolina shore while he is home on leave from the army in the summer of 2000? You don’t say. They have a brief, mostly chaste fling over two weeks? Sure, sounds good. Then they stoke the flames of their love with letters batted back and forth across the Atlantic? Quaint, and improbable, but again, why not?


Then John’s father’s autism is thrown, rather arbitrarily, into the mix for good measure. Wouldn’t you know it, this mirrors the autism of Savannah’s friend’s son, whom she loves like a mother (hint hint). Then the friend, the father of this boy, runs afoul of cancer. In the meantime John is about to come up on his honorable discharge when 9/11 hits. He reenlists and finds himself in the thick of the war in Afghanistan. He takes two bullets in the chest, heroically rescuing his fellow soldier.


Then he takes another bullet… to the heart! The worst kind of bullet, an actual honest to God Dear John letter that starts off “Dear John” (well played, Mr. Sparks!). Savannah has to tell poor John that she’s now married. Then John comes home to be with his father (Richard Jenkins, who actually acquits himself quite well here, as to be expected), who has suffered a massive stroke. Then John runs into Savannah, and… well, I won’t give it all away (though I mostly just did).


I’m not sure what did it, Nicholas: the double-team one-two punch of autism and cancer combining to tear our lovers apart (oh, well, with the war too)? Or the screeching harangue Seyfried levels at John late in the film, when she actually has the audacity and poor taste to equate her trials and suffering at home, dying of a broken heart, and having to live with the consequences of marrying a sick man just to take care of his autistic child (oh, I gave it away again), with John’s tours of duty in Afghanistan, where he was actually shot, in the chest. It’s stunning, and so out of place and just plain wrong that I almost can’t believe it happened – but it did, and so broke my heart (but probably not in the way you meant).


So, I’m sorry Nicholas, I really am. I’m sorry it has to be this way, and I’m sorry it had to be via letter (though apropos, no?). I can’t see you again. I can’t bear your mawkishness and your repetitiveness and your crass exploitation of illness anymore. I just can’t really see what I ever saw in you, and it breaks my heart, but what we had was so tepid to begin with, that I’m sure it will be as easy for you to never look back as it will be for me.


Best,


Jake


PS: Nicholas, I couldn’t help but feel justified with all the above when I discovered that you pretty much failed to come to your own defense in any of the special features on the disc (with one exception).  That’s okay, since no one else did, either. A short 10-minute interview segments with Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, and director Lasse Hallstrom is basically a lot of backslapping. None of them appears together, and none of them actually has anything to say about the content of the film.


A ten-minute collection of deleted and alternate scenes merely draws attention to the necessity of their own exclusion, while an “alternate” ending only alters the final outcome slightly. Better is a 15-minute piece about transforming the shooting locales in Charleston, SC, into various incongruous sets to stand in for Africa, Eastern Europe, and Afghanistan. Kara Lindstrom, the production designer of the film, displays a wry philosophical wit when discussing her craft, and she comes across as a genius of logistics, opportunism and imaginative misdirection.  Per her IMDb CV, she doesn’t appear to have had much work, which is a shame, since she seems an exemplar par excellence of her craft.


The longest featurette concerns young Braeden Reed, who plays the young autistic boy in the film. Turns out Braeden actually is autistic, which makes his inclusion in the film and his performance all the more remarkable. Sparks, whose own son has autism, shows up here to talk about his own involvement in autistic awareness and fundraising. This feature, clocking in at 25-minutes, is far more heartwarming (and wrenching) than anything in the 100 soggy minutes of the main film.

Rating:

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