Lasse Hallström taking on Nicholas Sparks? What next, wonders Kimberly Gadette: Scorsese dipping into the oeuvre of Danielle Steele?
What Dan Brown is to cryptic religious suspense, John Grisham is to crime and Louis L'Amour is to Westerns ... is what Nicholas Sparks is to sappy romance drama. The six of his 15 novels that have been reconfigured for film (including Message in a Bottle, The Notebook and the upcoming The Last Song, written for Miley Cyrus) are thronged with love-struck beings who seemingly live by that Shakespearean quote, "The course of true love never did run smooth." However, the course of true love in Sparks’ work meanders through emotional swamplands, inhabited by characters as shallow as the reed beds that border them.
A great mystery at the heart of this romance is why a beautiful girl who could choose any male that her piercing blue eyes happen to alight on ("You're probably everybody's type," says John), falls head over proverbial heel for a sullen Special Forces soldier with a history of violence. Amanda Seyfried's Savannah is a bright college student; Channing Tatum's John is not. Savannah comes from wealth; John lives with his autistic dad in a shabby two-bedroom down the road. Sure, there's attraction, but it's that don't-touch-me Twilight love, the characters’ actions channeled through Sparks' ethical filter. (No doubt echoed by the sensibilities of film producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, who also produce the Twilight franchise.) A two-week, virginal spring fling is one thing ... but in this story, we're expected to swallow the concept that the smart, beautiful college girl will put off all potential suitors, preferring to wait for a troubled stranger to someday come home from war. Worse, after the 9/11 attack on US soil, his tour of duty is suddenly extended for untold years. We might as easily expect our hero to stumble over Osama Bin Laden in some desert cave, and exact a speedy vengeance for Western Civilization en masse.
Another mystery: the choice of fairly new screenwriter Jamie Linden (We Are Marshall) who, per the production notes "initially passed on the project, not having had the experience of (and not being entirely comfortable with) writing a love story." He is ultimately unsuccessful in breaking free of Sparks' weepy melodrama. Modern films that walk the line between sentiment and mawkishness require a certain spark of humor, of feistiness to balance the self-sacrifice, to combat the sanctimony.
But perhaps the biggest mystery is why the extraordinarily-talented director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog) would have chosen this project. In many instances, the director is able to elevate the material; however, in this case the reverse occurs, and Hallström is dragged down. A rare sentimental moment between father and son lingers far too long, turning the bittersweet sour. The third act is a slog of the most maudlin order. The letters, OK at first, become a blur – visually, and in their content – eventually turning into smatterings of inky syllables melting into the screen.
And yet Amanda Seyfried manages to unleash an inner luminescence, suffusing the film with a much-needed lightness of being. As dark as Amanda is light, Richard Jenkins as John's mentally afflicted father is superb, conveying great emotional depth without the benefit of words. Channing Tatum, take note.
Speaking of which: other than the flat script and the often excruciating pace, the filmmakers' expectations that Tatum could carry their film was unduly optimistic. This isn't to say that Tatum can't grow into a strong actor; but at this juncture, he simply isn't up to the task of augmenting character where little is written. This role required an actor far more skilled in conveying a cerebral, conflicted emotionalism; an actor adept at film alchemy, who could reshape a vapid silence into a moving, internal struggle ... an undertaking better handled by the likes of peers such as Ben Foster, Jake Gyllenhaal or Ryan Gosling.
The "Dear John" letter, coined by Americans during World War II, defines a particular dreaded communication that military men on active duty receive from their wives/girlfriends. Rather than a letter that begins with usual pet nicknames such as "Darling" or, say, "Pookie," if the serviceman notes a curt, formalized opening, ie "Dear [name stripped of any endearments] John," it usually means that the writer is breaking off the relationship – she's found someone else and/or can't wait any longer.
Dear Mr. Sparks and The Filmmakers: Due to unanticipated disappointments, I regret to inform you that I cannot love your film. Godspeed.
Rating on a scale of 5 letters of recommendation: 2
Release date: US: 5 February 2010; UK: 7 May 2010
Directed by: Lasse Hallström
Written by: Jamie Linden
Based on the novel by: Nicholas Sparks
Cast: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Cullen Moss
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = TBC
Running time: 105 minutes