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2/4/2010 Post and Courier: Dear John - Sparks should be happy with film adaptation shot in the Lowcountry

By Bill Thompson

Great close-ups are the essence of romantic melodrama. Nothing matters so much, save for chemistry (or lack of same) between the leading players.

"Dear John" has them in spades, from the longing glances and flashes of anguish to big, limpid eyes awash in love.

Like Nick Cassavetes' "The Notebook," the previous Nicholas Sparks adaptation filmed partly in Charleston, "Dear John" has the customary elements of the tear-jerker, plus director Lasse Hallstrom's familiar trademarks: a wistful tone, smoldering emotion, attractive stars and a portion of unapologetic sentimentality.

The film is precisely what one expects from the source material, Sparks' 2006 novel, which, of course, is both good and problematical.

To fans of Sparks, the limitations of his stories are not an issue, and it must be said that in the last two adaptations at least, the author has been well-served by skilled filmmakers who know how to goose a screenplay to give it a bit more bite.

If "Dear John" has one undeniable advantage over "The Notebook," it's the caliber of the supporting performances.

In "The Notebook," one expected good work from the likes of Joan Allen, Gena Rowlands and James Garner, fine actors all, but instead got pinched or disappointingly over-the-top performances that should have made those actors blush in embarrassment.

There's is no such problem with 2009 Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, who delivers a quiet, measured performance (as the diffident father of the hero) that lends the romance of the young leads deeper meaning, particularly given "Dear John's" sub-theme of the challenges of living with autism.

In this, he is ably abetted by the freshness of 7-year-old Braeden Reed of Daniel Island and by veteran character actor Henry Thomas, who does as much as he can to overcome a questionable plot twist and make it work.

Written for the screen by Jamie

Linden ("We Are Marshall"), the film is the latest foray into the human heart by Hallstrom ("Chocolat," "The Cider House Rules"), last seen in these parts helming the 1995 Julia Roberts comedy "Something to Talk About."

For "Dear John," he benefits from the work of two up-and-comers in Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, who, like Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams before them, lend a measure of believability to the narrative.

Set in Charleston, Africa and Iraq, "Dear John" pivots on the star-crossed encounter of John Tyree (Tatum), a young Special Forces soldier back home on leave from abroad, and Savannah Curtis (Seyfried), an idealistic college student he falls for during her spring vacation.

Over the course of the next seven years, the couple is separated by his increasingly hazardous deployments, lastly to Iraq. While meeting only sporadically before the turmoil of 9/11, they stay in touch by sending a continuous stream of love letters to each other.

We spend more time with Tyree, given the inherent drama of his situation under fire, and empathize with his fate when the inevitable turn of events transpires.

In the main, Hallstrom's films are populated by good-hearted people of gentle spirit. Even the "bad guys" have a soft center, and sometimes everything's so gosh darn sweet you can start feeling your teeth ache. But there's no denying the professionalism of the picture, especially the work of cinematographer Terry Stacey ("American Splendor") and production designer Kara Lindstrom ("Polish Wedding").

One suspects Sparks has nothing to complain about.

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