Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: "Dear John"

Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum make for a cute couple in "Dear John," a romantic drama about a soldier separated by war from the girl he loves. But I never quite bought them as a real, passionate pair of star-crossed lovers as in "The Notebook," which like this movie was adapted from a novel by Nicholas Sparks.

OK, let's be frank here: Ryan Gosling of "Notebook" is one of the finest actors of his generation, with an Oscar nomination for "Half Nelson" and edgy performances in movies like "Lars and the Real Girl." Tatum starred in the dancing movie "Step Up" and its sequel, the street boxing movie "Fighting" and that execrable "G.I. Joe" flick.

So although we may believe Tatum as a big, tough Army Special Forces warrior, he's less convincing when he's making goo-goo eyes at Seyfried.

He plays John Tyree, who catches the eye of Savannah Curtis when he dives off a beach pier to rescue her fallen handbag. She invites him back to her place for a party, and pretty much overnight they're an item.

There are hurdles. Savannah's preppy friends don't care for the working-class soldier, and there's some indication that John's past is marred by troubles with his temper. Also, John's father (Richard Jenkins) is a virtual recluse who spends all day puttering around with his coin collection, barely speaking to his son or anyone else.

Savannah thinks John's dad has a mild form of autism, with which she is familiar because her next-door neighbor (Henry Thomas) has a young son with it. Her attempt to break through dad's shell creates friction between the young couple.

Being a soldier, John soon hears the call of duty that takes him far away. I don't think I'm treading into spoiler territory by revealing that she eventually dumps him via a letter. The movie's title, after all, is synonymous with such wartime separations.

Since this happens a little more than halfway through, it obviously isn't the end of their story together. But more than that, you'll have to discover for yourself.

Director Lasse Hallström ("Chocolat") and screenwriter Jamie Linden avoid the worst pitfalls of the romantic genre, with a story about a group of people that feels untidy but authentic. The romance between John and Savannah is the center of this little world, of course, but it's hardly the only thing going on.

Unfortunately, the stuff in the background is more interesting than the main action. Seyfried has a nice, slightly goofy charm. Tatum is certainly movie-star handsome, but doesn't project much of an emotional center.

(A quibble: I found it odd that the movie is explicitly set in Charleston, but only one character is ever heard with a Southern twang. Carolina accents are not exactly easy to miss.)

I just didn't have any strong reaction to "Dear John." I give it points for avoiding predictability. But it's never a good sign when the best way to describe how you feel about a movie is indifference.

2 stars

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