Can young love survive a war? A long separation? And most importantly, no email?
Dear John pits romance against real life when a studly soldier falls for a mellifluous student while he’s on leave. Based on the eponymous novel by Nicholas Sparks, the DVD bears all of the author’s signature elements: Mid-Atlantic beach setting with gilded summer days? Check. Male love interest with sea-faring hobby and fabulous six-pack? Check (our solider’s a surfer). Painful personal loss? Hand-written love letters? How about subtle class differences and a natural phenomenon that lets the lovers bond (this time, it’s the size of the moon)? Check, check, check and check.
Yet, while Dear John shares many of the components of the author’s genius formula (see: The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and Miley Cyrus vehicle The Last Song), it lacks the character development that made the travails of his other fictional couples worthy of Visine and a jumbo pack of Kleenex. Instead, John (Channing Tatum) and Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) fall hopelessly in love, but it’s never clear what they see in each other apart from his chiseled bod (see above) and her sunny demeanor. It’s plausible that John might subconsciously be looking for a surrogate mom and Savs is so chaste that celibacy is no biggie, but such devotion after two weeks (and 12 minutes max in movie-time) of inexplicable romance is a tough sell for these two without more build-up.
Dear John begs so badly to be a good movie, and the DVD only amplifies the plea with a set of unusually compelling extras. Of course, there’s the obligatory love-fest among the actors for each other and for their director, Lasse Hallström. But there’s also a lengthy featurette on Braeden Reed, who plays the autistic son of the film’s romantic foil, and who is autistic himself. The film’s military consultants get some featurette love, as does the brilliant production designer, Kara Lindstrom, who managed to make Charleston look like locations from Afghanistan to Western Africa and back again.
Throughout Dear John, John and Savannah face hurdle after hurdle in maintaining a relationship. John’s stationed far away, while Savannah has school to contend with (and, one would think, a bevy of new suitors). Plus, John makes a big stumble in a scenario that echoes last year’s awards-monger, The Hurt Locker, which also dealt with men and war and priorities, albeit in a radically different way. In contrast, the hurdle that Dear John faces is simple: Give us a reason to root for Mr. Tough Guy and Ms. Manners, and we might just have a reason to reach for the tissues.