Review in a Hurry: From sensitive, boring director Lasse Hallstrom (The Shipping News, An Unfinished Life) comes a love story featuring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried as the two most perfect people ever. This is undeniably appealing at first, no matter which lead you find more attractive, but a horribly contrived third act displaces our empathy with its conveniences.
The Bigger Picture: John (Tatum) is not only a super-handsome Special Forces man with a sculpted physique, but also an endearingly clumsy and sensitive dork in matters of love.
Savannah (Seyfriend) isn't just a drop-dead-gorgeous blonde who loves skintight clothing, but she also builds houses for the homeless while on spring break, and dreams of being a special ed teacher.
This being based on a book by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook), it's only a matter of time before they're making out in the rain.
But there'd be no drama if they lived happily ever after from day one, so what could possibly be powerful enough to tear these two apart?
Blame Bin Laden.
Seriously. The thing that drives a wedge between them is nothing less than 9/11. John reenlists during his country's greatest hour of need, despite his promise to Savannah that he was going to be done with the military after his prior tour. They write each other letters back and forth, but, well...the movie's not just called Dear John because his name is John.
Time passes, as demarcated by the ever-varying thickness of John's goatee, and the inevitable eponymous communiqué drives John into becoming combat-obsessed, essentially turning into Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker (a better, Oscar-nominated movie that you should try to see this weekend instead). Hallstrom's direction, however, is never better than in the brief war scenes; it'd be interesting to see him step outside his comfort zone and try a whole movie of that sort.
As the very first scene in the movie is a flash-forward to John getting shot in combat, it's not a spoiler to say that things don't go totally great.
It would be a spoiler to describe the god-awful plot developments that follow, though, so we won't. Suffice it to say that for about half its running time, the story earns goodwill with believable depictions of love both found and lost. It loses all that later in the game when it patently stops being honest and starts being Hollywood.
Aside from all that, the reading aloud of letters is a far less effective story device on film than when a reader peruses them in a book. Seyfried and Tatum are, nonetheless, everything they should be, and if that suffices, consider this a recommendation. Otherwise, look to our letter grade as a warning.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Remember Richard Jenkins, who got all that awards buzz for The Visitor? Here, he plays John's borderline-autistic dad, and he's really good at it.
(Originally published Feb. 4, 2010 at 8:50 p.m. PST)
See who got love from the Academy this week in our 2010 Oscars: Notable Nominees gallery.