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2/5/2010 New York Times: Young Love Caught in the Grips of 9/11

By A.O. Scott

Go ahead and cry. You know you want to. Why else would you read a book by — or, in keeping with our purposes here, see a movie based on a book by — Nicholas Sparks?

Mr. Sparks, a fixture of the best-seller lists, has patented a melodramatic formula that carefully blends soft-focus spiritual inspiration, desperate longing and a strikingly benign view of death. His universe is a place where comfort and pain are hard to tell apart because they both elicit tears. And tears are always the goal. In Mr. Sparks’s novels, of which there are now 15, impossible, star-crossed loves, often shadowed by illness and death, have an odd way of producing happy, or at least blissfully cathartic, endings. He is a master of the feel-good weepie, a form of mass-market deep-tissue massage.

“Dear John,” the latest attempt to bring his warm, earnest, therapeutic sensibility to the screen, falls in the upper middle range of Sparks film adaptations. If it lacks the epic sweep and extravagant emotionalism of “The Notebook” — Oh, Ryan and Rachel! Oh, James and Gena! — it also is free of the creepy piety and watered-down eros of “A Walk to Remember.” In the hands of director Lasse Hallstrom, a blue-chip hack with a sure touch even when he’s slumming for a paycheck, this story of interrupted passion takes on a ripe, summery glow.

That may have something to do with the setting, which is the Carolina coast in seasons when the days are warm and sudden rainstorms invite al fresco kissing. But the heat in “Dear John” — a flame carefully tended so as not to scorch anyone’s moral sensitivities — also comes from Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried. They play John and Savannah, whose love blooms in the spring of 2001 and keeps on blooming through war, family hardship and quite a bit of montage.

Though class divisions are not really on this movie’s mind, it’s clear that Savannah is a rich girl, with horses and preppy friends. John is not exactly from the wrong side of the tracks, but he has a vague history of trouble-making and a bit of a chip on his shoulder (and it’s quite a shoulder, by the way). He was raised by his father (the always-excellent Richard Jenkins), an obsessive coin collector who Savannah believes has a form of autism.

This casual diagnosis provokes John and Savannah’s first fight, which is fairly mild even though it leads to a couple of guys getting punched out. One of them is Tim (Henry Thomas), a family friend of Savannah’s who is rearing an autistic son by himself. The punch is an accident, and he is quick to forgive John, whose mumbling, diffident demeanor is as disarming as his physique is imposing.

When he and Savannah meet, John is on leave from the Army Special Forces, and when he goes overseas for what he thinks will be the last year of his enlistment they vow to keep in touch, writing old-fashioned pen-and-ink letters and gazing at the moon. Then 9/11 complicates matters by forcing John to choose between love and duty, and some other stuff happens too, all of it intended to melt hearts and facial tissues.

A lot of it succeeds. Mr. Tatum, in his movie roles so far — “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and “Fighting,” both directed by Dito Montiel, are the best — has shown himself to be an actor of narrow range. But his potential is evident, and his magnetism is undeniable. He is shrewd enough to stay within his comfort zone, and able to make the most of his interactions with more nimble performers, like Ms. Seyfried, a resourceful and engaging young actress industriously turning herself into a movie star.

Their likability is the movie’s greatest strength — how can you not root for such nice kids to overcome whatever obstacles life throws in their paths? — and also something of a limitation. John and Savannah are too thinly drawn to sustain a great love story. Mr. Hallstrom and the screenwriter, Jamie Linden, are careful to respect the vague, whispery tones of Mr. Sparks’s writing. (They do, however, change the book’s ending in a way that both deepens and blunts its impact.)

But a full measure of romantic complication or psychological depth is not what a movie like this — or the book it comes from — is for. “Dear John” carefully distills selected elements of human experience and reduces them to a sweet and digestible syrup. It may not be strong medicine, but it delivers an effective, pleasing dose of pure sentiment and vicarious heartache.

“Dear John” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). A little sex — moonlit and magical, of course, but far from explicit.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom; written by Jamie Linden, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Kristina Boden; music by Deborah Lurie; production designer, Kara Lindstrom; produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey and Ryan Kavanaugh; released by Screen Gems. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

WITH: Channing Tatum (John Tyree), Amanda Seyfried (Savannah Lynn Curtis), Henry Thomas (Tim Wheddon), Scott Porter (Randy) and Richard Jenkins (Mr. Tyree).

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