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17 April 2012
Dear John, the first of two Nicholas Sparks adaptations from the first quarter of 2010, and the fifth overall, was the very first to open in the #1 at the U.S. box office. In doing so, it became the Lost in Space of the 21st Century, by standing proud and tall on the weekend of 5 February to unseat a James Cameron film that had been devouring all sorts of records from its reign at #1. This was, yes, the film to bump off Avatar, thus securing for itself a permanent seat of honor in the cultural dialogue, where by "cultural dialogue" I mean "a moderately difficult trivia question". Show of hands if you could have answered the question, "What replaced Avatar at #1?" - the only reason that I could is because I have a spreadsheet dedicated to exactly this kind of information sitting in a place of pride on my computer desktop, and also because Dear John has long been one of my great shames as a blogger: if this whole "I'll review everything that opens at #1" rule has any merit whatsoever, surely it would include grappling with the film that stole the thunder from the all-time highest-grossing movie in the history of everywhere. On the other hand, I don't suppose that even just two years later, anybody still cares, just like I probably hadn't thought about Lost in Space for the better part of a decade prior to researching this paragraph - truth be told, I thought that U.S. Marshals was the film to knock out Titanic, and I'll bet that's another movie that nobody has thought of since some time in 1999.
But anyway, back to Dear John, one of the most significant box-office performers of the decade. How I do hate it. I cannot call it my least favorite Sparks movie, because every time I let my mind drift in that direction, out from the mists sidles Kevin Costner's smug ass face from Message in a Bottle, reminding me. But it's definitely a cozy #2, at least as of this writing. I still have Miley Cyrus's bid for credibility as a dramatic actress sitting just out of the corner of my eye. Oh, my beloved reader, I cannot tell you how much Dear John fills me with unhappiness. The contemporary romantic drama is by no means my favorite genre, but it still can deliver certain compensations, even if it's just an excuse to watch pretty people canoodle, and Dear John fails even on this level. Amanda Seyfried, who should not require any help at all to look lovely on camera, has been lit in such a way that suggests the gaffer and cinematographer had a blood feud with the actress, because everything that could be done to exaggerate her naturally prominent eyes until they're so buggy that it looks like she's trying to shoot them out of her skull like bullets, has been done. And even this is only one sin, not even the most angrifying sin at that.
Dear John was directed by Lasse Hallström. Maybe that says nothing; maybe it's even a sign of comfort. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly likes him. Also, I know that people have good feelings toward My Life as a Dog, which I have not seen. But in my corner of town, the unholy three-fer of The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and The Shipping News, shat out 1-2-3, neat as you please, for three consecutive Christmas seasons between 1999 and 2001, is all the evidence I'll ever need of the filmmaker's irredeemable douchebaggery. I think Hallström might actually have been the reason I chickened out on Dear John in the first place. But anyway, he directed it, and he did so very, very poorly. If Nights in Rodanthe is such as a plonking, pointedly inoffensive piece of Sparksian white bread as to seem like a parody, Dear John is a travesty of same; all dappled beaches and dappled horse barns and anything else you can dapple, because fuck yeah, Lass Hallström loves him the shit out of dappled light, and there are couples lounging in sunsets and montages set to dementedly lite-rock indie ballads.
And in the midst of this, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried: he as "Dear" John Tyree, a bad boy who joined up with the army to get his life on track, she as Savannah Curtis, the nice girl he meets on the beach one spring break when he's on leave and she's helping with an unnamed Habit for Humanity group. They fall in love, they weather the trials of being separated by school and the army, and then what maybe is meant to be a twist happens - the book up and says "this was all in early 2001", but the movie never makes even the slightest hint at a date until the 9/11 attacks, and the peekaboo way that this event is smuggled into the movie is just tacky as balls, and Hallström and screenwriter Jamie Linden seem almost pleased with themselves for reducing one of the most if not the most significant event of the decade to a complicating plot element for their bland little lovers - and Sparks at least plays completely fair with what he's doing with 9/11, particularly because the book is doing double-duty as a "support the troops" fable in addition to telling a singularly limp love story. It was, I dare say, the most opportunistic and shoddy misuse of 9/11 as a plot element in a romantic drama for almost a whole month, until Remember Me opened (what a bizarre year 2010 was). Anyhow, John re-ups, not out of patriotic fervor but because he feels sort of peer-pressured into it, and that makes the love affair much harder to sustain, but not as hard as when Savannah ends up getting married. And there's still a lot of complications to go, which is why I feel okay spoiling that bit.
It's just a... weirdly put-together story. It already was, in the novel, mixing earnest but flimsy pro-military material in with flimsy and sleepy romance and a fucking peculiar subplot about John's obsessive coin-collector dad, played by Richard Jenkins in the movie, who ends up being autistic. This was Sparks's way of paying tribute to his autistic son; I suspect that even the son can tell he deserves better. Though Richard Jenkins, who is so far ahead of the rest of the movie that he's very nearly lapping it, is ideally cast and plays Asperger's without any of the gory indulgence of a Hoffman in Rain Man or a Penn in I Am Sam.
The novel is tedious and grinding, and its star-crossed lovers so emotionally immature as to be nearly impossible to like (the "tragedy", if it can be called such, is that couples grow less emotionally intense after the first flush of romance, which counts I hope as neither an insight nor particularly sad); and yet the movie is worse in every way. There are a lot of stupid little changes that don't matter - the movie is pointlessly shifted to South Carolina, instead of Sparks's beloved native North Carolina - and stupid little changes that do - Savannah's friend Tim (Henry Thomas) is now her father's friend rather than her age-appropriate possible boyfriend, and that makes the ending a hell of a lot ickier - and a big huge change to the ending that more or less invalidates even Sparks's thin, watery little themes, and feels anticlimactic and tacked-on only because it was - the ending was changed because of everybody's favorite, test audiences.
The biggest flaw, though, is not Hallström's trashy, cloying directing, nor Linden's feeble reduction of the plot, nor a Deborah Lurie score that sounds like cheap Christmas candy, nor so much post-production tinkering with the visuals that the actors appear to be carved from wax: it's that Seyfried and Tatum have absolutely no credibility as a romantic couple. Tatum, bless him, isn't good at romantic dramas, or much else, and his casting obviously has more to do with his hunky, brooding, heavily-chiseled face than anything. Seyfried, I cannot explain: I have liked her in bad movies before, but she's just dreadful and empty here. Throw the two of them together, and absolutely nothing happens: two voids looking past one another and responding to each other's lines of dialogue rather than having a fluid, living conversation. It's unconvincing in every single scene, but not hilariously so, not enough for Dear John to attain some level of campy badness. It's just pale, simpering non-eroticism, and anchoring a movie that has done so very little else that's any good, it results in one of the most painfully boring love stories of its generation.