I have a friend who is not the biggest fan of films based on Nicholas Sparks literature. It's not that he's not a fan of romantic movies; he's a fan of the older films, and Sparks' movies may be interesting for a moment, they prove to be largely (in his words) formulaic. I've seen a couple of his films, and didn't pay much attention to his most popular one (The Notebook). But with Dear John, an established director was helming it (Lasse Hallstrom, Cider House Rules), so it couldn't be so bad, right?
John is played by Channing Tatum (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), a quiet guy taking in the surf while home on leave from the Special Forces in pre 9/11 South Carolina. He meets Savannah (Amanda Seyfried, Big Love), whose purse he fetches after it was knocked into the ocean from a pier. They strike up a conversation that immediately turns into a relationship. He meets her friends, like Tim (Henry Thomas, Gangs of New York), the single parent of an autistic child. She meets his father (Richard Jenkins, The Visitor), who is also autistic.
Soon they have to take separate paths. John has to return to duty, while Savannah goes to college. They make an agreement to write one another, and they do so with such frequency that they have to number their letters because the mail service may lose the letters. When 9/11 does occur, John's left with a dilemma of sorts. He wants to spend the rest of his time with Savannah, but he also wants to do the right thing for his country, and his Special Forces teammates all re-enlisting doesn't make the decision easier. During the few times that John is home on leave, he tries to spend that time with Savannah and his father as much as he can. Time, however, starts to put fractures into John and Savannah's relationship, to the point where they may not be able to salvage it.
To figure out what happens in the second and third acts of the film, all you need to remember is both the name of the film plus a knowledge of military slang, or at least have watched a truckload of M*A*S*H* episodes growing up. I didn't realize this until after the fact, as the leads of the film were dragging this agony out past any sort of believability. To Seyfried's credit, she's taken on increasingly challenging roles since scaling back her television work. Tatum on the other hand, kind of looks like a dog that's been humping its owner's leg for a little too long. The funny thing is that he maintains this countenance through the film. This mild confusion combined with the unadulterated beefcake hotness that brings the female demographic into the audience is well intentioned, but he has little chemistry with Seyfriend. He has more chemistry with his Special Forces friends. Maybe's that's because he was going out to be a 'Real American Hero.'
Because there's no charisma between the leads, the viewer has to turn to the story for some comfort, and it doesn't deliver. Disappointing, pedestrian and predictable even by romantic film standards. Some storylines are flirted with but are given assumption, while others aren't explained at all, including what is thrown up as a conflict between the two leads. It took me with a mix of surprise and "Get the Hell out of here!" disbelief, because something so silly shouldn't have been worked into the film to begin with. This is a byproduct of lazy storytelling that is given a free pass in the film.
While I wasn't watching Dear John with someone who could perhaps better appreciate the film, I can safely say that the film stands as a disappointment even for those who are enthusiasts of romance films. It tries to be a romance set during the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, but it's barely a romance film. You'd be better off watching the short-lived Judd Hirsch sitcom of the same name, at least THAT'S entertaining.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Sony presents Dear John in an AVC-encoded 2.40:1 widescreen presentation and it makes for entertaining viewing. Whites are a little hot in the film at times, though I chalk this up to artistic intent from Hallstrom and the film's cinematographer Terry Stacey. But a rainstorm in a half-finished barn looks excellent, spotting drops as they hit the wood floor around John and Savannah, one of several examples of excellent image detail. Flesh tones are accurately reproduced and fine points like pressed Class "B" Army shirts are discerned easily (including the upside down shoulder boards John wears late in the third act). Sony continues to do great justice to their titles with this release.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track doesn't get much to do, but it does everything capably. They captured the brief war sequences that John finds himself it well. Bullets fly in multiple channels though not in the same soundstage of war-themed films, and they hit flesh with a resounding thud. Environmental scenes during rainstorms (or in the ocean when John surfs) produce a gentle layer of ambient noise in the rear channels making for an understated but enveloping experience. Dialogue is reproduced accurate and requires little compensation. This is a quietly effective result.
Twelve deleted and alternate scenes (five former, seven latter all totaling 10:13) are the first bonus materials on the disc. The deleted scenes are forgettable, the alternates have a couple of minor changes but nothing remarkable. The alternate ending (3:41) has a little more voiceover from Seyfriend and that's about it, and is certainly inferior to the actual ending. An outtake reel is next (2:24) but doesn't really provide any laughs. "A Conversation with Channing, Amanda and Lasse" (5:24) features the usual thoughts by the named parties about the story, characters and working with one another, while "Transforming Charleston" (14:52) examines the production design of the film itself. It's really more about covering all the locations within South Carolina and what was done to take it and make it look like Mogadishu. Recalling how sets were dressed and what they were dressed with is recalled, and there's an occasional cast or crew thought tossed in from time to time. The military advisors even share how much they were impressed.
Speaking of military advisors, "Military in Movies" (11:03) examines the efforts to get the film right from an Army perspective, and some former troops who appear in the film share their thoughts on their respective tours. "Mr. Tyree, The Mule and Benny Dietz" (4:53) interviews a member of the cast who is a huge coin collector, similar to John's father in the film. Jenkins discusses his thoughts on it as well. The last featurette is "The Story of Braeden Reed" (24:33), who plays Alan in the film. Braeden is autistic in real life, and Sparks talks about the inspiration for the character in the story, while the piece focuses on Braeden's life and how his work in the film has helped his development. His parents talk about the challenges in raising him and how he's progressed through the years. It's a very compelling piece and worth watching for those curious about living with an autistic child. The "MovieIQ" feature is Sony's subtitle track that provides information on music, production and cast information via a subtitled track and internet connection, should you wish to take advantage of it.
Dear John might have its heart in the right place, but it's way of expressing it is hackneyed and without any imagination. The whole cast doesn't seem to be committed in the film and the film is unfulfilling emotionally. Technically it's a solid production and from an extras perspective it's not entirely bad, but there are other romance films have been executed far better than this. Worth renting to spend time with your better half, unless she likes good movies too, in which case you should blow it off.