Dear John aspires to be one of the first 9/11 military romances – a Casablanca or From Here to Eternity for the Twin Towers era. This makes the movie’s hokum and dullness more than simply bad; it borders on the offensive. Grand, real tragedy is used in service of paperback drivel (this is another adaptation of Nicholas Sparks). Or is there some sort of catharsis in having the horror of that day softened by pap?
Channing Tatum plays John Tyree, a special forces soldier on two-week leave who falls for Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), an angelic college student. They’re instant soul mates, largely because he can start a fire without using matches. (“Wow, you just made your own fire,” she swoons when he uses his special-forces skills to conjure cave-man magic at a beach party. “Very primal.”)
Romantic bliss follows, drawn out in a long, torturous letter-writing sequence after John returns to duty. Then the planes hit, John re-enlists in a patriotic fervor, Savannah regards it as a betrayal and the real anguish sets in.
I’m still convinced Tatum, of Step Up and Stop-Loss, has the makings of a star. He mumbles and slouches, but there is real charisma and even some range here. (He could have been a Rocky for which I really cheered.) Dear John, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, gives Tatum nothing to work with, though, let alone the wispy Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) or poor Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), the latter of whom is forced into a Rain Man routine as John’s mildly autistic father.
The picture’s fatal flaw is its maturity level. Casablanca and From Here to Eternity – most of the good war romances – are about adults. Technically, Dear John centers on adults too. But with the movie marketplace being what it is – and studios knowing that the big dollars lay with young audiences – the movie plays younger. Dear John features tweens in grownups’ clothing, including a military uniform.