ARTS

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February 5, 2010

Dear John: Return to sender

A friend explained to me the other night that he has seen Avatar seven times now, largely because there is nothing else worth his while in theaters. Dear John is the perfect justification for him. It’s disappointing that the winter film season, typically beginning in January and lasting through March, is programmed as a forgettable few months packed with tepid horror movies, kiddie comedies, and second-rate dramas that can’t contend with the Oscar bait in November and December. Let’s face it, we’re in the middle of the filler season and coming up on Valentine’s Day, so a treacly Nicholas Sparks adaptation with bright young things Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum is par for the course.

Seyfried, who I have found incredibly likeable in her films up until now, plays Savannah Curtis, a college student from an affluent, conservative, southern family who falls for—you guessed it—a boy from the other side of the tracks. Channing Tatum plays John Tyree, a brooding army soldier on leave with a troubled past that the military disciplined out of him. But like Nicholas Sparks’s other southern-set tearjerker The Notebook, boys separated from girls by tracks have hearts of gold, caring fathers, and decent homes. What’s different this time is that John gains respect as a serviceman, whereas Ryan Gosling’s carpenter just “wasn’t good enough” for Rachel McAdams in The Notebook.

As the plot unfolds between 2000 and 2007, Tatum returns to his Army unit for his next tour of duty and Seyfried returns to college, both writing love letters all the while. But 9/11 corrupts the plans of the happy couple, who had promised their love to each other after just two weeks of summer lovin’ in 2000. Tatum is compelled to extend his tour of duty now that his country needs him, and Seyfried is left to ponder when she’ll have this man in her life again.

Unfortunately, we’re set up for a big twist that arrives with a “Well duh!” thud, only to be re-routed through levels of sap and sugar thicker than a Charleston Chew. This is a matter of fault with the source material that proves to be the “jump the shark” moment for the film, and serves no purpose but to make our dear John seem like the nicest guy who ever finished last. The film boasts the sentimental directing pedigree of Lasse Hallstrom, who has been hit-and-miss in the past with successes, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules, and misfires, like An Unfinished Life and The Hoax.

Character actor Richard Jenkins, best known as the deceased patriarch in Six Feet Under and the manager of the Hardbodies gym in Burn After Reading, also stars in a difficult role as Tatum’s father with high-functioning autism. Jenkins is exquisitely nuanced and doesn’t overread his character’s disability. His performance is an effectual one that helps the film earn a compelling and truly poignant scene, even if that scene takes place in a hospital hallway where Jenkins, post-stroke, is inexplicably abandoned. It’s a touching scene hindered by one question repeating in your head: “What the hell is he doing in the hall?” This scene is our one glimpse of a Tatum capable of showing emotions that can’t be expressed through his usual blank stares and reserved banality.

During most of the movie, Tatum is the human equivalent of the Ren and Stimpy log. Although his wooden sturdiness fits his role as a soldier, I can’t stop hearing the lyrics to the log song from the show. “It’s log, it’s log / It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood” do not speak kindly to Tatum’s leading-man charisma, or rather his lack.

You can do better with silly rom coms than you can with this emotionally manipulative variety of drama. I invited a guy friend to come along to my screening of this, which he politely declined “because it’s Nicholas Sparks.” I later apologized for inviting him. No good friend would ever subject another to this movie.