February 11, 2010

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Dear John (PG-13)
Attractive young people participate in a romance set to lite-pop singer-songwriter fare in the soggy toast Dear John, another weepy adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks book.

Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) is a caring, big-eyed college girl and John (Channing Tatum) is a quiet, soulful soldier on leave. It’s the spring of 2001 and instead of heading to some booze-soaked foreign meat-market, these right-acting youngsters are hanging out with their respective families at a beach in the Carolinas. Working-class surfer John watches as well-to-do Savannah has her purse knocked into the water. He rescues it — beating the cocky but ultimately well-mannered college boy she’s with to the heroism punch — and they begin a friendship that quickly turns into a romance. She spends her days working on some Habitat-for-Humanity-like project and teaching the autistic son of her neighbor to ride a horse. John quickly falls in love with this Goodie Two-Shoes and even appreciates her ability to get through to his quiet, quirky dad (Richard Jenkins). At the end of their two weeks together, they make some kind of vague lovey promise to each other and decide to write letters until his time with the Army is up — only a year longer, he says.

But, of course, spring 2001 turns into fall 2001 and John finds he can’t walk away at the end of his year. He tells Savannah that he’s re-upped and their letter-writing must continue. And it does — voice-over seeming to outweigh dialogue in this movie. Things happen, the way of young love does not run smooth. And, once the improbable decision-making and the unconvincing reactions play out, the movie ends with an uplifting swell of music.

Allow me to interrupt this movie review with a commercial — specifically, that Dodge Charger commercial during the Super Bowl, “Man’s Last Stand” being its tag line. It lines up the reasons that the poor poor Everyman deserves his Charger (he holds your lip balm, he watches your vampire TV shows, he is listens to your opinion of his friends). The Dodge Charger is his reward for being so thoroughly domesticated (as though one couldn’t make a similar ad about listening to his “funny” stories about his friends again, and having to hear, ad nauseum, about how awesome the damn Charger is). I sense that, zeitgeist-wise, movies like this are part of that list: here’s another awful thing women like that men have to sit through and aren’t they heroes for doing it? Well, Mr. Dodge Charger, this movie was directed by a man, from a screenplay by a man based on a book by a man. How about helping yourself by not visiting such moronic romantic horrors on the world. Don’t make the crap movie and you won’t have to suffer through it on your date.

Now, of course, it’s silly to blame some generic Media-Producing Man for this movie. Plenty of women did indeed see it and probably liked it — enough people in general, in fact, that it finally bumped Avatar from its weeks-long run as number-one movie (a very thin silver lining to this whole affair indeed). But this movie is so nakedly meant to be a Chick Flick — so condescendingly “here’s one for the ladies” and so shamefully shoddily constructed, as though girls didn’t need fully developed characters or sense-making motivation. Can’t we end this war of the sexes and agree that everybody, romance fans and buddy-cop movie aficionados alike, enjoys and deserves movies with solid stories and genuine dialogue — movies, in short, that are or at least strive to be good?

This movie features elements relating to class, to the relationship between U.S. civilian society and its military and to the effects of autism on a family. It puts these things right out there, like Interesting Plot Point cheese meant to attract Multi-Dimensional-Story-loving mice, and then walks away from them, deciding to instead expend all of its effort on keeping up the irritating epistolary structure. It is deeply dedicated to letters and scenes of people writing letters and reading letters and waiting for letters but doesn’t seem all that interested in making those letters contain anything of interest. It gives us the structure of a romance story (a particular kind of Nicholas Sparks-based, well-dressed, Carolinian-shore romance) but fails to fill it with any life, any heat. Seyfried and Tatum are both appealing, attractive young people and both good actors (not that you’d know it from this movie). But here, all they seem to do is stare at each other. Perhaps the movie meant this to denote chemistry but the effect is of two people wondering what they’re supposed to do now. The movie gives them nothing to work with — no normal human dialogue, no organic plot. The movie fails to gin up anything like the kind of interest in characters required for a movie like this to work and then lazes back, using 9/11 or cancer patients to wring a tear from the audience from time to time. It holds itself up as a rich tapestry of two people’s emotional life but fails to fill in any of the color and texture that would make that true, make it a description we can see rather than one we are told.

So, I sat through your movie, I didn’t make vomiting noises out loud, I was civil to the other members of the audience. Where’s my damn car? D

Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence (which is way less interesting than that description makes it sound). Directed by Lasse Hallström and written by Jamie Linden (from a book by Nicholas Sparks), Dear John is an hour and 42 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.