DEAR JOHN continues the translation from page to screen of wholesome romances devised by genre juggernaut Nicholas Sparks. This one weaves 9/11 into a story about the distances between people and the difficulties in bridging them, whether those distances are spatial or emotional.
Our lovely couple are Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum), two people from different backgrounds who meet during spring break in 2001. She’s college gal who just lost her purse to the waters beneath a pier on a South Carolina beach. He’s the Special Forces Army guy who dives in to rescue it. She invites him home for a barbecue and romance blossoms. And why not? They are both beautiful. She’s a bubbly aspiring teacher of special needs children, he’s the quietly prototypical sensitive guy with an iffy past. Needing only the two weeks at their disposal before her vacation and his leave are over, they fall for each other, and vow not to let the distance come between them. The specifics of John’s assignment force them into using that most quaint of customs, writing actual letters to each other on paper using pens. Naturally, the course of true love doesn’t run smooth. The reunions are giddy, the separation, though, and the demands on them by their respective lives are another thing.
Seyfried and Tatum are terrific together. She makes nice girl interesting with a firm sense of purpose and a genuine open-heartedness that includes just enough girlishness. As for him, no one does the strong silent type better than Tatum, and it’s not just the signature flexing of the jaw muscles in time of strong emotion. It’s the way he doesn’t overplay the way John gets just a little clumsy when he’s first around Savannah, and the way he looks at her as though that makes the audience believe that Savannah is the only person on the planet for him. They have an unfussy emotional intimacy that is truly endearing. It’s Richard Jenkins, though, as John’s emotionally crippled father who steals the movie. Playing a character that is unable to express feelings in conventional ways, but still gets them across to the audience with a pathos that is heartbreaking.
Tatum’s ability to make emotions ring true is the best thing about the sequences showing John on duty in various dangerous locales around the world. Army life is presented with the requisite and respectful camaraderie, but is so squeaky clean as to be all but unbelievable. There is more drama in the way Tatum has John reacting to seeing his healed wounds for the first time, the wounds that he receives at the beginning of the story, than in the way he received them.
DEAR JOHN is a pleasant enough date movie with the lush photography and score that are part and parcel with the romance genre. The twists that turn syrupy are also part of that same parcel, but elevated by a cast that throws itself heart and soul into the proceedings.