Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Dear John is the film adaptation of tearjerker extraordinaire Nicholas Sparks' book of the same name. A solider named John (Ooh! Part of the title is explained!) meets a girl while on leave from the Army Special Forces in 2001. John (Channing Tatum) and Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) fall in love within a matter of days, for reasons that are hard for viewers to explain. Sure, they're attractive, but their relationship moves fast enough to make Fatal Attractions-era Glenn Close say "Maybe you two should think this through a little longer." Still, John only has two weeks of leave, so they truck on like it's nobody's business. John is soon introduced to Savannah's family and friends, including local rich jerk Randy (Scott Porter), her neighbor Tim (Henry Thomas), and his autistic son. John reciprocates by introducing Savannah to his father (Richard Jenkins), a shut-in that isn't much of a father to John; instead, he is obsessed with his coin collection. Savannah points out that John's dad might be autistic, since he seeks comfort in patterns, schedules, and predictability. John apparently doesn't know the difference between autism and being retarded, and chooses to get really pissed off over Savannah's suggestion. This leads to some other stuff, but in the end, John and Savannah part when he returns to the Special Forces with the promise to write each other bushels full of letters. Oh, now I get it..."Dear John" refers to the beginning of her letters to him! And here I thought it would refer to the infamous "Dear John" letter, where a woman tells her man that she's met someone new. Silly me. Well played, Mr. Sparks. Well played, indeed.
John seems ready for this to be his last year in the military, but then the September 11 attacks happen. John is briefly conflicted, but Savannah tells him to do what he thinks is right, so he re-enlists. Over the next two years, Savannah's letters become rarer, until she finally sends him a final letter. Sadly, she has become engaged to an unnamed man and won't be writing John any more. Oh, snap! Do you see what happened there? The movie's title initially referred to the beginning of her letters to John, but then they turned it around and used that same title to refer to the brush-off letter! I did not see that one coming! On behalf of all movie watchers, I now crown thee Lord Nicholas Sparks the Unpredictable. You may rise.
John handles this the most rational way he can and re-enlists for another four years. Eventually, John is forced to take some leave to attend to his dying father, who dies after John reads a heartfelt letter to him. It has been six years since he last saw Savannah, but they meet again and John learns that she has married Tim, who is dying of cancer. John goes to visit Tim in the hospital, where Tim explains that Savannah still loves John more than she ever loved him, and that he is happy he married Savannah because now his son will not be orphaned. Savannah tells John that there is little hope for Tim, because the insurance companies won't pay for experimental treatments and they only live on a ranch with several horses --- they can't possibly pay for his treatment! John then cashes in his father's coin collection and anonymously pays for Tim's experimental treatment. How you do that for treatment that hasn't been administered yet, I'm not entirely sure. This is where John says goodbye to Savannah, and she gets the feeling that he really means it. The treatment gives Tim enough time to get well and then die at home. Savannah writes to John to tell him Tim's fate, which motivates John enough to leave the Army after his tour of duty is over and return home. The last scene shows John and Savannah catching each others glance in public and then they hug. The end, thank God.
If nothing else positive can be said for this movie, I will say that it is brave. I can't think of any other film that tries to handle autism, cancer, and post-9/11 military stresses at the same time. You can call that ballsy, stupid, or just plain insensitive, but it takes no shortage of confidence to attempt.
I am a little surprised by the way autism is treated in the movie. Rain Man was made 22 years ago. Everybody, even Channing Tatum, is at least aware of the movie, even if they haven't seen it. I realize that I am moderately educated, but equating autism and mental retardation is fairly ignorant. I will even acknowledge that my understanding of autism isn't terribly deep, but Dear John just comes across as stupid because it doesn't delve much deeper than "uh...I thought you meant my Dad was a 'tard, but I guess you're right, maybe. Let's bang before I have to shoot things."
Another peculiar thing about this film is the treatment of Tim's character. He might seem like a pretty nice guy, but he enters a loveless marriage, and only after Savannah realizes that "he needs" her; I'm not sure if that is a reference to his son's autism, or his cancer. It doesn't matter, though. I guess there's nothing as romantic as feeling like a weight chained around your loved one's neck. My understanding for Tim's motivation here is that he just wanted to give his son some security after his death. Maybe I misread that, but I think it's kind of douchey thing to do, especially when you're friendly with your wife's true love. I don't know if the filmmakers were just hoping that his cancer would generate enough sympathy to negate this or what, but it didn't quite work.
Speaking of not quite working, Amanda Seyfried contributes to the soundtrack. It's a song that is played during a montage and then cuts to her playing it for Channing Tatum. It's not a bad song, but it doesn't really come off as very natural, especially since it's the only time she sings or plays guitar in the entire movie. It could have been worse, though...imagine Channing Tatum's singing voice.
There are things that don't quite work in this film, and things that are outright stupid, though. One of these is the numbering of Savannah and John's letters. The movie takes the time to have the couple figure out that, with John moving from location to location in the Army, their letters might arrive out of chronological order. Okay, that makes sense, right? Their solution is to number their letters. So, that would end up with the letters being numbers as "Dear John 1, 2, 3, etc." and "Dear Savannah 1, 2, 3, etc." Otherwise, if they were numbering the letters as "John luvs Savannah 1, 2, 3," they would both have to wait to write their next letter until the next sequential letter arrived in the mail, which could take weeks with John's Army stuff. That might sound fair initially, but do you remember what the number was to the last check you wrote, off the top of your head? Neither do I. This is a plan doomed for failure. You know what would have worked better? Writing the date on the letter. Just an idea.
About those letters...they're awful. Never mind that this is yet another Nicholas Sparks story where the couple manages to avoid telephone calls, text messages, and email, using only handwritten letters to communicate. The big pledge after John and Savannah's two-week romance was to "tell [each other] everything." Okay, that would make for a lot of letter writing. It's good to give the troops something to read, so that's cool by me. The only problem is that they don't tell each other everything. Their letters are all sappy stuff and lame dreams. Nothing about their friends or everyday lives. Gee, I wonder how John got blindsided by her marrying someone else, if they only wrote about things like "wherever you go, the moon is smaller than your thumb." No, it's not. It's a moon. It controls the tides. Read a book. Not a Nicholas Sparks one, though.
That reminds me...John and Savannah meet when her purse is knocked into the ocean from a dock. She says something about her "whole life" being in that purse, so John makes a twenty-odd foot dive into shallow water to save it. If only it had been shallow enough, the rest of the movie could have just been Amanda Seyfried sitting in a hospital room while Channing Tatum napped in a coma. Strangely enough, we never find out what made that purse so important. If she was upset because her purse fell in the water, that's one thing, but to claim that your whole life was in the purse...? That's a touch melodramatic, unless you explain it away with a "I keep my arterial hypertension medication in that purse," or "I'm literally addicted to cherry Tic Tacs."
Is it just me, or does this movie try to feel like other successful projects? I can't have been the only one to equate Savannah's desire to marry a dying man with Jennifer Morrison's character on House. The opening voice over from Channing Tatum was definitely reminiscent of American Beauty's beginning, too. Of course, Kevin Spacey's voice over was not a strained metaphor about being a "coin" that was "minted" by the Army, only to become "tarnished" by...something. Who cares? It's dreadful. It only gets worse when the entire voice over is performed on screen by John, while his father is dying.
Enough about the stupidity of this film. Not every movie is brilliant, but sometimes movies can overcome poor scripts and plots with virtuoso performances or on-screen chemistry. Sometimes, but not always. I have no major problem with Amanda Seyfried in general, but she really doesn't bring much to this movie aside from her body. Channing Tatum can only offer his body to any role he plays because he can't wake up convincingly, much less act. He has a terrible speaking voice, too. When he was giving his "I am a coin" speech, he sounded kind of like Patrick from Spongebob. I will admit that Seyfried and Tatum are an attractive couple, but their chemistry is lacking here. That's not a huge surprise, given their grasp of science and the size of the moon. As far as the supporting actors went, Henry Thomas came across as a limp wuss, which was better than Scott Porter's one-dimensional jerk performance. The saving grace to this movie's acting was Richard Jenkins. He played John's autistic father convincingly and sympathetically. He's only on the screen for fifteen or twenty minutes, but he is definitely the highlight. Had the plot been about him, this movie might have worked, even if you kept the rest of the cast. As it stands, though, Jenkins' performance just highlights how low the acting quality was for the rest of the film.
These awful performances are especially shocking, considering that Lasse Hallstrom was the director. This is the guy that did What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat. The fact that he did such a good job with those films and ended up with this tripe makes me hope that the man is getting a divorce and needed some quick cash. I could have gotten better performances out of the cast by whipping them and screaming "Emote, damn you!"
I could go on and on, fueled by hatred and spite, but I'll leave that to the experts. It may seem superfluous to spell this out, but this was an awful, awful movie. Don't watch it. The only thing keeping this from zero stars is Richard Jenkins.