Saturday, October 9, 2010
I'll Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter
I cannot tell a lie: I think Nicholas Sparks' books are exactly alike. Now, now, I confess I haven't read any of them, but given Message In A Bottle, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, and of course, the Citizen Kane of Sparks film adaptations, The Notebook, they all seem like the same story told over and over and once more: man and woman (one or both with a troubled past) meets man/woman, they fall in love, and something keeps them apart. There appears to be a certain built-in sappiness to his tomes, a pseudo-sweet worldview that frankly I think is almost destructive. This is how I see both his novels and the films based on them, so I was quite alarmed at Dear John, or at least the concept of it. I found that my fears were not only grounded, but fully materialized.
John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is a soldier on a two-week leave in his hometown. While surfing, he sees the beautiful Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), whose purse falls into the ocean in what is generally called a plot device. He rescues it, she invites him to a cookout where he meets the unnecessary love rival, Randy (Scott Porter) and her seemingly platonic best friend Tim (Henry Thomas), who has the requisite adorable but autistic son Alan (Braeden Reed). Wouldn't you know it, but in those two magical weeks John & Savannah fall passionately, madly, and most importantly in a Sparks book/film, chastely in love. In that short time John introduces Savannah to his father (Richard Jenkins), who has a mania for coin collecting.
Eventually, their time together must end: he back to Germany, she back to school. However, they promise to keep in touch via love letters. As they continue their courtship, wouldn't you know it: that pesky September 11, 2001 gets in the way. He goes off to war, but how fickle is woman...John actually gets a Dear John letter, breaking his heart. Six years later (yes, I did say six years), he still hasn't recovered from the Greatest Love of All, but his father's stroke along with his own actual war wounds sends him back to the States, where they reunite and we discover why she broke his heart, and given it's from Nicholas Sparks, her reason for doing so is also pure.
If there seems to be a note of sarcasm as I describe Dear John, it's merely because the film begs me to hate it. Their love was fast, yet their love is pure. When Jamie Linden writes you a scene where your two leads kiss for the first time (or at least first time on screen) in the rain, you can hear the clichés coming straight from the keyboard. As if this weren't already a bit much to take, we have the scene where they finally consumate their love. It was remarkably tasteful, but it made the lovemaking of the Greatest Love of All Time seem...well, chaste. Now, one doesn't need a wild orgy, but it was filmed so cinematically that it became unreal--too artsy for such a low-brow project. The obvious question: if they are so much in love, why don't they get married when he comes back on leave--isn't asked because it would ruin the beauty of this pseudo-impossible and pure love. I asked myself, why don't they just married? I answered myself, if they did, we'd have no movie. They must be kept apart, confound it, at all costs--even at the cost of logic.
There were a total of nine to ten voiceovers of John and Savannah reading each other's letters, starting from the beginning of the film and continuing to the end of the film. Are there any other clichés Linden and director Lasse Halstrom want to hit us with? How about the adorable yet special child? Check. The troubled father? Check. The dying love? Check and check. Dear John is if anything, a love letter to love letters, a throwback to a more gentle time when lovers separated by war wrote to each other with pen and paper. While I long for those days to return, even I recognize most people would write electronically. The fact that they didn't makes me think that Sparks and Company think a story that would be better suited for World War II would work in the Afghan/Iraq Campaigns.
Here's where Dear John is completely disingenuous: in one of her five voiceovers, Savannah mentions e-mail to John as a way of communicating, but they never use it. The reason is simple: John's military exercises provide him no access to the Internet. Granted, I can go along with that for a bit, but when you are in Afghanistan, you think, if jihadists have access to the Web, surely the American troops have it too. However, we can't have long flowing prose about how "I'll be looking at the moon/but I'll be seeing you" in e-mail. (For the record they didn't actually quote from I'll Be Seeing You, but they might as well have. In a strange twist of fate, this song was played in The Notebook. Curious how two of Sparks' books seem to draw from the same well of inspiration. Also, the Mel Tormé version is far better than the Billie Holliday version). In fact, I wondered whether I was watching The Notebook: Afghanistan. It's not too much of a stretch: a man who is poor is separated from the truest love of all time by war, only to return and find her unavailable.
No one was helped by their individual performances. Tatum is in the running for being the least expressive person with the dubious title of actor working today. Granted, he has a nice voice (which is great for the voiceovers), but when he's on the screen I don't think he changed his facial expression once. I'll give him an A for Effort: he did try when he begs Savannah's forgiveness, but still he couldn't get a sense that this was John Tyree. I think Tatum is hampered by the fact that his background is that of a model with basically on-the-job training. This is the second film I've seen of his where he's a soldier (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the other), and I think for a role that requires total stoicism he's set. However, for a romantic film, his lack of expression is deadly.
Seyfried is all doe-eyed as Savannah, and at times I get the sense that she is trying to wring a performance out of the lousy material, but while Meryl Streep could do it (and that's a big if), Seyfriend can't quite get there. Faring worse is Jenkins, who comes off as doing a Rain Man audition. The scene where he demands to be taken back to his house after John & Savannah got him to almost come to Savannah's family mansion (a Southern home so vast I half-expected Mammy and Prissy to come charging in and take Miss Savannah for her nap) was especially painful. Porter's Randy character (no pun intended) was suppose to be this rival for Savannah's affection, but that didn't last. Thomas was pretty blank as her seemingly-platonic friend, as if he was trying his best Channing Tatum impersonation. Finally, while I'm loath to pick on an autistic child, Reed's appearance as Tim's son really added nothing to the overall story except a reason for The Greatest Love of All Time to have a stumbling block.
Now, normally I don't comment on alternate endings but instead judge on what is on the screen. However, I understand there is controversy because the official ending is different than the novel's ending, which is captured in the alternate ending. Having seen both, they should have had the alternate ending. That had a better sense of poignancy than the requisite happy ending, one that did in a sense cost someone his life.
Dear John is one of those films that is totally and absolutely sappy, but basically coming from another time. There was no acting by anyone, a story that we end up not caring about, and is completely indistinguishable from any other film that has emerged from the oeuvre of Nicholas Sparks. In the end, is there anything in Dear John worth your time? Well, for 90% of women and 10% of men, there is one...
I also have some Personal Reflections on Dear John author Nicholas Sparks.