Much more than just a Dear John letter
“Don’t be cynical.” So urged Conan O’Brien in the final moments of his ill-fated Tonight Show run a few weeks ago. It happens to be good life advice. It’s also helpful if you want to enjoy any of the film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’s romance novels, particularly his latest.
“Dear John” is arguably the best of the Sparks bunch. It feels better-rounded than the excellent “A Walk to Remember,” which was noteworthy for featuring a young girl who stands up for her Christian principles. While “Dear John” may not feature the as strong a cast as “The Notebook” or “Message in a Bottle,” it is less cloying than either. (The less said about the snoozer “Nights in Rodanthe” the better.)
In any case and as with all of Sparks’s films, cynics should stay home and tissues are mandatory.
If anything, “Dear John” proves that old-fashioned stories are fashionable again; such is their uniqueness. You will find very few films that treat their subject and characters with more earnestness and respect.
John (Channing Tatum) and Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) meet on a South Carolina beach while he’s on leave from Army Special Forces duty and she’s visiting family. Savannah’s disposition is as sunny as John’s surfing-honed shoulders are broad, and the two quickly establish chemistry.
Tatum’s range may be limited, but he’s a charismatic hunk with a convincing soft side. And Seyfried is bubbly but not overbearing. This kind of film depends on us rooting for them and we do.
“Dear John” takes its time in the opening moments as the two engage in natural, unforced dialogue. It’s a treat to see young adults actually have intelligent conversation, and it lends credibility to a story about the power and pain of a long distance relationship. After 9/11, John re-enlists and the two must correspond via ink and paper (a method that still works quite well), and must pine for each other through the lonely moonlit nights apart.
Richard Jenkins is marvelous (as usual) as John’s coin-collecting, compulsively reticent father and gives the film an unexpected emotional tug that’s impossible to resist.
Critics will hate that John and Savannah are decent, honorable young people without dysfunction or burdens to bear and whose intimate scenes are best defined as “sensual” not “sexual.”
But “Dear John” never stoops to being trite or works too hard at its romanticism. Several twists surface so that elements common to Sparks’s stories-illness, death, and unrequited love-avoid being contrivances and serve as guideposts for a sturdy screenplay founded upon life’s realities.
Only romantics, not cynics, need apply.
Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence.