As midwinter sudsers go, you could do a lot worse than Dear John, an unassuming and mildly endearing adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks's novel of the same name. Director Lasse Hallström and screenwriter Jamie Linden sprinkle this Southern romance with spicy references of the medical and topical variety: Autism, cancer, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq all make cameos. Ultimately, though, they seem to know that this is comfort food through and through, and act accordingly. If they don't refrain from the syrup, they at least have the good sense to use it in moderation.
Of course, it is a little jarring to hear car radios blaring in the background about the collapsed Twin Towers while twentysomething lovers John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) fret about their complicated long-distance relationship. When they meet in South Carolina during the spring of 2001, John is on leave from his Special Forces unit, carrying out military duties that he describes as long stretches of tedium mixed with occasional bursts of chaos. He and Savannah, a college student spending her spring break rebuilding a neighbor's hurricane-damaged home, meet cute when John dives into the ocean to retrieve Savannah's fallen purse. Their whirlwind, if notably chaste, romance commences soon thereafter, with days spent frolicking on the beach or eating Sunday dinners with John's mildly autistic, coin-collecting father (Richard Jenkins). Soon, Savannah returns to her studies and John to his unit, and they begin corresponding via a series of letters until John's tour concludes at year's end. That is, until the 9/11 attacks inspire John to continue his military service, putting strain on his and Savannah's future together.
On paper, this must sound pretty tacky (if it weren't for those damned terrorist hijackings, we could be together!), and perhaps it is. Given the thinness of the source material, however, Hallström makes the right choice in acknowledging Sparks's awkward real-life insertions before quickly shifting the focus back to Tatum and Seyfried, a pleasantly low-key couple further beautified by Terry Stacey's warm, sun-dappled cinematography. Savannah may be more of a eyebrow-raising construction of untainted femininity than a fully-formed character (she doesn't drink, smoke, or have sex, and only curses in her head), but Seyfried uses her magnetic eyes and sly smile to convey Savannah's quiet sultriness and intelligence.
And given John's emotionally constricted upbringing, Tatum's lunky reticence, for once, feels narratively appropriate, and occasionally quite charming. This extends to his scenes with Jenkins, who largely eschews mannerism to reveal flashes of fatherly love beneath layers of hard-wired anxiety. When John's father tries, and fails, to overcome his social unease and attend a party at Savannah's home, the shame and fear that washes over Jenkins's face cuts through the melodrama and gets at something shockingly raw and moving.
Dear John has many nettling issues, from lazily-staged war sequences to a bizarrely tone-deaf scene when fellow airport travelers beam at the reunited couple as they are screened at post-9/11 checkpoints. (A particularly unfortunate cut moves us from John and Savannah embracing to an anonymous man smiling as he fondles his belt buckle post-security pat down.) By the time we reach the plausibility-stretching third-act twist, one is tempted to give up entirely on its limited charms. Yet the film's handling of this last-minute reversal ends up being curiously emblematic of its unfussy emotional sincerity. Without giving too much away, I was struck by how simply Dear John concludes: a warmhearted, wordless reunion between old friends. In a genre larded with histrionics, such modesty is indeed becoming.