In the world of romantic novels and their film adaptations, it's hard not to know the name of Nicholas Sparks. The best-selling author has a knack for enduring romance, kisses in the rain and North Carolina shorelines, and Hollywood tends to translate his tearjerkers with an effortless emphasis on those most swoon-worthy moments ... which means that certain cynics rarely take well to his particular brand of saccharine whether it's on the page or the screen.
As luck would have it, Dear John isn't nearly as saccharine or heavy-handed as any movie about autism, cancer and a love divided by duty inherently threatens to be. In fact, in director Lasse Hallstrom's hands, the material comes off with some measure of grace and restraint, as do the performances of Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, and it's all enough to have even us certain cynics rooting for their eventual reunion.
A soldier in both Stop-Loss and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Tatum downplays the swagger here as John Tyree, who meets Seyfried's Savannah Curtis while he's on leave and she's on spring break. They fall for one another, naturally, even after Savannah gets a bit blunt about John's soft-spoken father (Richard Jenkins), and they agree to write letters back and forth to make his last tour of duty go by faster. These plans, however, are jarred significantly once the 9/11 attacks happen, and John suddenly finds his commitment to his fellow man and country at odds with his commitment to his new love...
Sure, it sounds like any number of post-WWII melodramas, but take away the politics and throw in not only a lifelong friend of Savannah's (Henry Thomas) whose only son happens to be autistic, but also a bond between Tybees Jr. and Sr. over the latter's much-cherished coin collection, and we start entering distinctly Sparks-ian territory. Thanks to a distant dad and absent mom, John doesn't know how to be vulnerable; with loving friends and a loaded family, Savannah doesn't seem to know compromise. They'll each learn soon enough, between all the arguments and embraces, because that's just how this formula works.
But work it does -- mainly because Tatum and Seyfried are giving performances more mature than one would expect. They aren't nearly as hot-blooded in their portrayal of a romance that spans years and miles as, say, Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling were when paired together in The Notebook, but it's no small feat that Hallstrom (Chocolat) pushes them both past their respective 'stoic' and 'bubbly' comfort zones, which results in something closer to 'real people' in a real relationship than the usual Sparks vessels for maudlin moments. That said, Jenkins acts circles around them both with the fewest lines and the smallest of gestures, and Thomas gives a nice, measured turn as a single father who values Savannah's efforts to interact with his son and has to be there for her when John literally can't.
The work of Hallstrom and his actors proves vital in balancing out screenwriter Jamie Linden's exhausting fidelity to your traditional tearjerker beats, and again, it all works just enough, to the point where an inevitable plot-swerve or two come across as somewhat surprising and sincere in execution. We all knew that this romance would be chaste and sentimental by default -- that's just what some girls pay for -- and there is no small amount of contrivance and groaners for those cynical boyfriends in tow, but Dear John often goes through its motions with a greater tenderness than expected and, as such, comes a whole lot closer to something its audience deserves than what they tend to settle for.
For more, see our interview with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried.