Ed reviews 'Dear John' 

3 stars, (PG-13)

click to enlarge dear_john.jpg
It's gloppy, contrived, obvious, dramatically narrow and the main characters seem laminated. At one point, I found myself wondering if anyone in the movie perspires. There is moisture - people cry, they get wet at the beach - but despite setting the story in hot places (the American South in the summer, the Middle East), I can't recall seeing a single drop of sweat on anybody.

Regardless of its problem areas and the whole sweat thing, I liked the movie. Not a lot, but enough. Sometimes you just get in the mood for a laminated weeper.

Dear John is based on the romance novel by Nicholas Sparks, who also wrote The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember. Sparks really digs correspondence. He sets up a romance, physically separates the couple, and then the letters begin. Old-fashioned letters of substance, the kind hardly anybody writes anymore.

The writers-in-waiting this time are John Tyree (Channing Tatum from Fighting), a Special Forces soldier hanging out on his home turf in the South while on leave, and college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried from Big Love) who is going back to school soon. The complicating people are John's socially-stunted, possibly autistic father (Richard Jenkins), Amanda's pesky beau Randy (Scott Porter from the Friday Night Lights TV series), her noble single-father friend Tim (Henry Thomas) and his adorable young autistic son, Alan (Braedon Reed, who is autistic in real life). The complicating situations are physical separation and the fact that John is a soldier far from home in a movie titled Dear John.

Lasse Hallstrom directed the film. He also directed My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Casanova and The Hoax. Make what you will out of the list. I enjoyed his composition and use of close-ups, but there were too many scenes where people romanced, reflected or moped while some singer-songwriter performed a Starbucks-friendly number. And the scenes of Tyree and his fellow soldiers chatting were too "Aw shucks, fellas" nice to feel credible.

Hallstrom seems to have tailored the production to the strengths and limitations of his lead actor. Channing Tatum has a great torso, coupled with flinty good looks and a wounded/flummoxed rebel persona. He's good at expressing anger, crying, and looking down, and that's about all Hallstrom asks of him. Tatum reminds me of Mark Wahlberg in the early years of his acting career - he couldn't do very much, but he had this underdog quality that kept me rooting for him. Or maybe I just find both actors appealingly dreamy and dumb. As for Amanda Seyfried - she has big, beautiful eyes and is likable, even if the behavior of her character is sometimes baffling.

At the screening I attended, the packed house was mostly female and young. There was strong applause at the end from a few of them, with less determined applause from a larger segment of the crowd. As I said, I liked the movie well enough, largely because of its flaws. Sometimes cheesy romances are enjoyable, especially with a great looking leading man. If you're a straight male and attending Dear John with a date, all I can tell you is to wrap your arm around your honey-bunny's shoulder and hang in there - it's only an hour and forty minutes long.

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