Are there any words more dreaded than "Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks?" Dude is a terrible, terrible writer, who spins romantic yarns that should, by all accounts, bore even the loneliest and most susceptible reader. And yet Hollywood just can't get enough of him, even though by all accounts his most successful adaptation, 'The Notebook,' wasn't seen in theaters by that many people, but rather picked up steam as a chick flick cult movie on home video and cable.
But, as 'Dear John,' the latest Sparks adaptation began, I saw a few more words I've learned to dread even more: a small caption, designating the date as "January 2001." By now, we should all be savvy enough to know that if a movie is set "Sometime before September 2001," then the terrorist attacks of September 11th are going to play a huge role in the story. You will probably also know that groan-worthy dialogue like this will follow: Romantic lead (male), also an army guy: "My commitment is up in 12 months." Romantic lead (female): "A lot can happen in 12 months, John."
John is the titular John, here played by Channing Tatum, the wooden, man-like actor who also starred as a humorless army guy in 'G.I. Joe.' Since Nicholas Sparks is so clever, the title is a play on words, and once John, after a deeply spiritual spring break fling with the gorgeous and chaste Amanda Seyfried (who plays Savannah – because Nicholas Sparks' female characters have to be named like strippers), gets shipped out for active duty. Even though the dude looks barely old enough to flip burgers at McDonald's, he's a "special forces" operative, which probably means he does a bunch of wetwork like assassinating dictators, but in the movie he mostly walks around phony "exotic" locales.
Anyway, after their initial romance, most of the movie is the writing of letters, back and forth. It is incredibly tedious, and even when it's punctuated by stuff actually happening, like when John comes home from leave to visit Savannah at her family home which was quite obviously a plantation a few decades before, it's an awful slog. It's when he's home that John chooses to tell Savannah that he's going to re-enlist, because he's fired up following September 11th. In short order, we will then see him on a variety of military missions, including, apparently, the invasion of Iraq.
Now if I can dust off my soap box for a minute, this is one of the most infuriating things about the movie. It's been almost ten years - we now know that there was no connection between what happened on September 11th and the bloody war in Iraq. But stupid Nicholas Sparks and these filmmakers have decided to include a major plot point where our hero feels inspired to join in that war based on what happened on September 11th. It was maddening and even if you don't buy the gooey, softcore romance between Savannah and John, there's enough chemistry to at least keep you mildly engaged (plus there's a really strange turn by Richard Jenkins as John's autistic, coin-collecting father). But then this whole plot point happens and if you haven't checked out of the movie already, then you should have.
Anyway, the movie is just awful. After John goes to fight in Iraq, he continues writing and mailing Savannah, so we're treated to endless montages of people opening and reading letters while sappy voice over runs. It's dreadful. And yes, he gets a dear John letter (is it a spoiler if it's the title of the movie?) But even more dreadful is the fact that Amanda Seyfried, who is generally one of the best young actors (see her in the underrated horror comedy 'Jennifer's Body'), is saddled with lines like this: "Horse sense? How horses can sense danger or evil. I think autistic kids have it too." Yes, that is an actual line from the movie.
Those looking for a thoughtful, emotionally engaging romance should look elsewhere. This is an overtly sentimental, easily dismissed fantasy, in which women are either saintly puritans (Savannah doesn't drink or smoke but she does curse – in her head) or lowly tramps (two separate families had mothers walk out on them, leaving the fathers to run things). On the upside, if you're looking for Henry Thomas, the young lad from 'E.T.,' looking like a total weirdo, you've come to the right place.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Region A locked 50GB Blu-ray disc does automatically play, with some terrible, terrible trailers that run before the menu (stuff like the Jennifer Aniston action rom com 'The Bounty Hunter' – ick). I think I said everything else that needed to be said in that last sentence. Oh yeah, and it's BD-Live ready.
As much as I detest 'Dear John' (and I really do find it offensive and awful), there's no denying that its MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 2.40:1) is pretty squeaky clean.
There's really nothing negative to say about this transfer, to be honest. Skin tones look good, blacks are deep and inky, textures and detail are great, there are no blemishes to the film (in fact, there's very little grain – it's downright sparkly) and there are no technical issues to speak of, either. That means no halos, artifacts, or aliasing. It's just a very nice image, although there's nothing exceptional about the cinematography, so such a pristine image seems wasted on such drab compositions, camera angles (there's a super annoying one where it cranes up and over our soldiers) and shot choices.
Just as impressive, I'm sad to say, is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix.
This movie isn't a wham-bang action thriller, although it is punctuated by totally unconvincing war set pieces (particularly towards the end), and both the quieter dramatic scenes as well as the later action-heavy scenes are rendered with an admirable level of nuance and clarity. Again, you just wish this treatment was saved for a movie that wasn't wholly irredeemable.
The mix is clear and dialogue is crisp and well prioritized (mostly up front and center). Earlier sequences, particularly when the pair are at the beach (where most of the first act is set), have a nice level of atmospheric ambience, while the later, wartime scenes are given the more robust treatment. Neither one is particularly engaging, but that's the movie's fault.
There isn't a whole lot else to say about this mix. It does its job well, is surprisingly full bodied, and is always clear and easy to hear. It won't knock your socks off, but it's not supposed to either; each scene is given just the right amount of weight and sophistication.
While there's only one audio option, there are subtitles available in English and English SDH. What, no international market for this slop?
The only Blu-ray exclusives on this disc are the MovieIQ, that lame-ass trivia track that Sony is forcibly affixing to every high profile high definition release, and BD-Live, which at the time of this review, was not active. So I'm not really going to go into those here. Instead I'll just focus on the special features that the Blu-ray and DVD editions share.
Is 'Dear John' a great film? No. Is it even a very good film? Well, no, it's not that either. In fact, it's one of the more offensive movies I've seen in a long time (moreso than, say, 'Antichrist,' and a lot less fun). With its simplistic views on life, war, and love, it just really rubbed me the wrong way. That said, this is an impressive looking-and-sounding disc, and it has a healthy (if not exactly noteworthy) collection of special features. So, if you think it'll get you some booty on date night, give it a rent, otherwise, stay far, far away.