Sunday, February 7, 2010

It Could Have Been Much Worse: DEAR JOHN

When you see the words “based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks” you know to expect a movie that replaces genuine emotion with meaningful glances, confuses trite twists with shocking developments, and sends the cinematography into a contest with the actors’ complexions to see which can be more sun-dappled. Dear John is all of the above, but thankfully also a little bit more. It’s the old story of lovers kept apart by war, but it doesn’t feel too stale under the direction of Lasse Hallström, who has made a career out of polishing movies until they just barely exceed expectations, the sturdy script by Jamie Linden, and the shrewdly chosen cast, who fill the thin roles beautifully.

Love at first sight, the two protagonists meet on a beach in South Carolina. He’s on leave; she’s on spring break. The romance develops more or less how you’d expect until he has to ship out with the army. It is spring 2001. They write each other dozens and dozens of letters. He says he’ll be home in a year. We know that’s doubtful, especially knowing what September has in store.

In broad strokes, the story sounds like typically dopey Sparks plotting (see, or actually, don’t see Nights in Rodanthe) but in the telling, the movie manages to elevate the material. Not much, but just enough. The casting does much of the heavy lifting. Channing Tatum plays the male lead (John, get it?). He’s an actor of extremely limited range, but he’s deployed here in a role that requires precisely that range. With his height, his broad shoulders, he fits the part of a soldier, but with his smaller eyes and mostly unexpressive mouth, he appears to be trapped within himself, like there’s more to him than he’d like to admit. This quality is used exactly wrong in something like G.I. Joe, but here he fits just right, especially opposite his romantic interest in the film, the wonderful Amanda Seyfried. With her large expressive eyes, she is a good balance to Tatum. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a great young actress with the rare gift of enriching material. How else could she be the only person other than Meryl Streep to escape the debacle of Mamma Mia! completely unscathed?

But the biggest reason the movie works more than it should is the great Richard Jenkins, a consistently good performer, playing the father of the Channing Tatum character. The character is the source of the greatest emotion in the film. He’s a quiet man, incredibly smart, slow to criticize, stuck in his ways. Jenkins has a way of communicating emotion that deflates melodrama, by just shifting his gaze or turning his head by the smallest of degrees. This has always been the quality of his that I have valued the most, the way his character can change with the smallest gesture, like in North Country or The Visitor, to name two of his best recent roles. He doesn’t have as great a role here, mostly because his character gets to be the center of an awkward subplot in which Seyfried suggests to Tatum that his dad might be slightly autistic. I see her point, but it made me wonder even more about the Jenkins character. How did he meet his wife? What happened to her? How has he raised his son? What was his job? I was distracted for a few minutes contemplating the better movie that could be made about him.

And yet, I was surprised by how often Dear John struck the right notes, or even slightly surprising notes that turned out to be mostly right anyways. I was surprised when, instead of hysterics, there are moments of quiet contemplation, or even slowly revealed revelations. There was even one scene that, despite being a little hokey in the writing, made my eyes a little misty. It’s a scene late in the film between Jenkins and Tatum and if you see the movie, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about.

Is the movie manipulative? Yes. Is it sometimes too corny or even, gasp, cornball? Yes, indeed. But did it still keep me interested and involved and even, at times, make me feel some emotion? I cannot tell a lie. Yes. Even though the movie lifts a put-your-thumb-over-the-moon motif from Apollo 13, it thankfully doesn’t show up too often. And even though I was, from time to time, not all that involved in what was going on, like when the couple make soft-focus, moonlit, tastefully framed, PG-13 love and I was more interested in the Swell Season song on the soundtrack, the movie is a just-good-enough mid-winter romance. It’s hokey, but it’s adequately told with modest rewards.

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