I’ve never actually read a book by Nicholas Sparks, nor do I have desire to.
After all, his novels regularly find their way to the screen. So I feel as though I’m absorbing them by osmosis.
I don’t think I’m giving much away – no spoiler alert required – to say that “Dear John” is the first of the cinematic adaptations of his books I’ve encountered in which one of the two lovers at the center of the story doesn’t die. Not that true love runs smoothly – Sparks wouldn’t have an oeuvre if it did.
Sparks is a big believer in people having a moment and capitalizing upon it, even if it doesn’t last. The people in his stories always seem to be at a critical point in their lives – a decisive point – when they’re questioning everything they’ve ever believed in. They’re vulnerable, open to a connection they never had before, receptive when that one person suddenly walks into their life and changes everything.
Not that everything ever stays changed for long. Inevitably there’s a conflict – there wouldn’t be drama without conflict – often involving a misunderstanding of some sort. And then regret and, with luck, reconciliation – but not for long. Never for long, because otherwise how would Sparks make his audiences tear up at the cruel irony when true love refuses to resolve itself as happily ever after?
In “Dear John,” the couple that has a moment consists of John and Savannah (which is confusing because the story is set in Charleston). John (Channing Tatum) is a soldier at home on leave; Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) is a college girl at the beach on spring break.
They meet cute on a pier where Savannah, with a group of friends, accidentally drops her purse in the water. While her male companion dithers and runs down the pier to get to the shore to get to the water, the valiant John simply jumps in, dives to the bottom and rescues the purse, winning the girl’s heart.
They spend a rapturous two weeks together, though not without bumps. There are hints (and even brief evidence) that he has an anger-management problem (which apparently was solved when he joined the military). Autism is also an issue; she is one of the few who can reach the autistic son of a family friend (Henry Thomas). And she makes a not-unfounded suggestion that his socially retarded father (Richard Jenkins) may suffer from Asperger’s syndrome.
John goes back to duty in Germany (where he’s in Special Forces) and Savannah goes back to college. They write regularly, pouring out their hearts and longing for the day when his final year of service is up and he can come home to her.
Unfortunately, the story begins in the spring of 2001, so their epistolary romance is interrupted by 9/11. He comes home on a weekend leave – and tells her that, like everyone else in his unit, he’s going to extend his enlistment. She is, to put it mildly, not enthusiastic.
Shortly afterward, he gets the kind of letter for which the film is named. Shortly after that, he is wounded in action. Shortly after that, he recovers and decides to become a lifer. Shortly after that …
Really, there’s nothing short about this movie. It stalls out after an hour, then stumbles along for another 50 minutes of the usual Sparksian palate of life lessons and regrets and sadness.
Tatum possesses a gift for quiet that’s surprisingly effective here. A longing look makes up for a lot of script deficiencies, though not nearly enough. Seyfried is a wide-eyed beauty who has some acting chops but is not up to the task of carrying an entire movie on her slim shoulders, even with help from the hunky Tatum. Richard Jenkins is a godsend in any film but, at times, it’s hard to tell if he’s in character, or merely shying away from the camera out of embarrassment at how little he has to do.
Once upon a time, Lasse Hallstrom was an interesting filmmaker, a Swedish import with an acute eye for American manners and mores. But then he got lost in sludgy literary adaptations such as “Chocolat” and “The Shipping News” – and now a Nicholas Sparks movie.
At one point in the film, John starts a fire by using a flint. There’s more heat in that bit of action than in this entire soggy, dreary film.