Dear John opens Friday throughout the Triangle
For all their schmaltzy underpinning, two things have always buoyed the movie adaptations of novels by New Bern-based author Nicholas Sparks. First is their North Carolina setting (even if they're not always filmed in the state). Second is their durable casting, particularly romantic leads that include Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn (Message in a Bottle), Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) and Richard Gere and Diane Lane (Nights in Rodanthe).
I won't hold against Dear John that it relocates the book's Wilmington, N.C., setting to Charleston, S.C., a change probably motivated less by artistic license than variances between the states' respective film incentive programs. But the casting of Channing Tatum, the hunky hulk who has mumbled his way through roles in Step Up (1 and 2), She's the Man, Stop-Loss and G.I. Joe, is troublesome on its face. The choice becomes downright dire once Tatum is called upon to tiptoe his way through the story's dense emotional minefield.
While on leave from deployment as an Army Ranger and visiting his father's beach house, John Tyree (Tatum) meets and falls for Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a doe-eyed college student whose summer job appears to be a relentless do-gooder. She works for Habitat for Humanity! She looks after her friend's autistic child and wants to work with the developmentally challenged after graduation! She successfully diagnoses John's elderly father (Richard Jenkins) as suffering from Asperger's syndrome!
Dear John goes AWOL as a love story, the typical raison d'être for Sparks' books/ films. Contributing factors include Tatum's performance, a splintered narrative that constantly veers from South Carolina's shores to John's post-9/11 reenlistment and deployment, and director Lasse Hallström's ponderous direction, which dilutes John and Savannah's coupling down to frolicking in the surf, making out in the rain and monotonous voiceovers of their overseas letters to each other.
The film's saving grace is the complicated relationship between John and his father, played with great skill by Jenkins. John's dad loves his son but doesn't possess the ability to fully express it, while John loves his father but lacks the understanding to cope with his emotional deficits. Their strained bond throws the emotional gut punch inherent to every Sparks tearjerker. More important, it's also Dear John's most earnest and reflective segment.