SC reviews: Dear John

By Shu ChiangMovies - 22 February 2010 6:00 PM | Updated 01 March 2010

SC reviews: Dear John

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Are there clauses in Channing Tatum’s professional contracts that require he only take roles that feature him with his top off or wearing singlets?

For that matter, has he cornered the market for strong, silent jock roles?

Regardless, the fact is that Tatum still hasn’t shrugged off his tough guy image; in this film, however, it works to his advantage, because he plays an American soldier who is torn between his one true love and his patriotic duty to fight wars for his country all over the world.

Fans familiar with the works of author Nicholas Sparks may derisively refer to him as a purveyor of schmaltzy romance novels. The question here is: do his works translate well to the big screen?

To be fair, The Notebook (2004), starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, was a critical success. It had the benefit of a fine director (Nick Cassavetes) and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jan Sardi (Shine).

The more recent Nights in Rodanthe (2008), a Richard Gere-Diane Lane romance, didn’t fare as well.

Despite having a credible director in Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules and the recent Hachiko), and an appealing young actress in Amanda Seyfried as ‘counterpoint’ to Tatum’s somewhat dull ‘point’, the film is just average.

It has its ups and downs. First, the ups. The aforementioned Seyfried, who has a connection to Sparks through her Mean Girls co-star McAdams, is a luminous presence.

As a college student named Savannah who has the (mis)fortune to fall for Tatum’s John in a matter of two whirlwind weeks at a seaside town, she projects vulnerability, intelligence and tenderness. Most importantly, she is an easily endearing figure.

Another sympathetic figure is that of John’s reclusive father, played by the impeccable character actor Richard Jenkins, who exhibits signs of borderline autism. He is brought closer to John by Savannah’s calming influence, and his character bears watching for all his inferred innermost turmoil.

While this is a story with a contemporary setting, which attempts to take a refreshing view of a relationship strained by the Bush administration’s expansive foreign policy, particularly in light of 9/11, it doesn’t ultimately make for a satisfying cinematic journey.

Among the downs, John’s characterisation does not offer enough complexity – attributable to both Sparks and Tatum, and his limited range – which is a problem because Tatum has the most screen time.

Meanwhile, the plot developments, particularly in a rushed final act, eventually start to feel like a long drawn-out cop-out. (Unfortunately, Henry Thomas – perhaps best remembered for being in E.T. as a child actor – as a close friend of Savannah’s, is an accessory in this ‘crime’.)

On the bright side, Dear John further marks the emergence of the unconventionally beautiful Seyfried, who is a talented singer as well, ever since she had a star-making role in Mamma Mia! (2008).

Who knew that the bimbotic high schooler from Mean Girls, a supporting character to those of McAdams and Lindsay Lohan, who would squeeze her bosom to predict the weather, would prove to be such a diamond in the rough?

Savour also Jenkins’ turn. It might have been a much better movie if it had been focused on him, and his struggle to keep an even keel. But that’s another (wishful) story, one that was sadly not written by Sparks.

About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.

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