Hallstrom, Sparks deliver a walk to forget
Sitting through the final act of Dear John, the fifth film based on the work of author Nicholas Sparks, I kept remembering that one line from the opening credits: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.
After the movie I sat at home and wondered how a once great director like Hallstrom, whose films The Cider House Rules and Chocolat earned back-to-back Best Picture nominations at the Oscars, could fall so far and land in material like Dear John. While Hallstrom's track record has been far from perfect - I disliked Cider House and despised The Shipping News - he also brought us excellent films like What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Hoax.
But even his less-than stellar outings like Shipping weren't half as bad as Dear John, a painfully boring film that has far too many depressing elements dripping with sentimentality and bad dialogue. Unlike Hallstrom's other films, which were at least true to their characters, John begins as a cliched romance between college student Savannah (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia!) and Special Forces soldier John (Channing Tatum, G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra).
As a romance it was poor, but tolerable, as the two fall in love quickly over the span of two weeks in early 2001. They meet after her purse falls off a pier and John jumps in to save it, swimming to the bottom easily with open eyes apparently unfazed by salt water. They are obviously attracted to each other, and the next 15 minutes are by the book romance, even if Savannah seems a little naive for the world-weary John.
But John still has time to serve in the Army, so the young couple becomes devoted pen pals. Thanks to this, there's a good 10 minutes that feature nothing but John doing Army stuff and Savannah laying around reading excerpts from their letters through voiceover narration. I'm not the biggest supporter of voiceover narration to begin with - it frequently seems like a device used when filmmakers lose inspiration and can't figure out how to convey ideas in a less direct way. In John, it's simply distracting. It doesn't help that both these characters are poorly written.
But the road will not prove easy for these young lovers - in fact, they are presented with all kinds of serious, deathly obstacles that stand in their way that range from national disasters to disease. Any one of these devices could have been used to create plenty of drama for one film - several of them have provided the crisis for good films - but John packs them in as fast and recklessly as possible.
In doing so I felt the film simply trivialized all the dark plot devices it employs, simply using them to try to tug on the viewer's heartstrings instead of exploring how they change these characters. I wouldn't be surprised if some viewers are downright offended by how some horrible events are used only to create plot twists that don't make much sense.
Several interesting characters played by good actors get lost in the mix. Richard Jenkins (Step Brothers) is wasted as Tyree's father, despite a couple promising scenes early, while Henry Thomas (E.T.), as the parent of an autistic child, just looks sad a lot.
By the end, I was so overwhelmed by all of the heavy material that it became almost comical. The plot twists and characters' decisions make no sense, and everything is so gloom and doom that the options available for the last 20 minutes were try to laugh or bang your head against the chair in front of you.
I will note that Tatum is actually quite good considering how little he has to work with - John might be the film's only believable character. Seyfried, on the other hand, was surprisingly ineffective - an oddly forced performance from the otherwise charming actress.
While I honestly didn't expect better from Sparks - I've been bored from Message in a Bottle to The Notebook - I've come to expect much better from Hallstrom. If it weren't for the credits, I wouldn't even believe he could be associated with a film this uninspired, sentimental, unintelligent and boring.
Dear John is rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence. It is playing at the Regal Cinema 7 in Boone.