For a film that fits so snugly into the tried-and-true formula of star-crossed lovers, Dear John is full of pleasant surprises.
The setup is a familiar one: In February of 2001, 21-year-old Special Forces officer John Tyree (Channing Tatum) meets college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) while he's on leave and she's on spring break. After a two-week courtship, they have sworn their eternal love and promise to get back together in one year after his tour is up and she graduates with a special education teaching degree. In the meantime, they exchange letters -- since he's being transferred all around the globe, snail mail turns out to be the most intimate, reliable form of communication they have (besides, an old-fashioned love story is no place for texts and e-mails). Everything seems to be on track for their eventual happy ending, until the terrorist attacks of September 11 prompt Tyree to re-up, a decision that breaks Savannah's heart -- and leads her to eventually write him the kind of "Dear John" letter he never expected to receive.
For a plot as ancient as this one to work, the leads need to sell the deep romantic attachment, and Seyfried and Tatum accomplish this right from the start; from the moment they first see each other on the beach, their chemistry has a sweet fizz. The opening 20 minutes establishes their connection in a very low-key, realistic series of scenes in which they get to know each other a little bit at a time -- just as the audience does.
But as any savvy moviegoer knows, the trick to a great romance is to make the forces -- either external or internal -- that keep our lovebirds apart believable. And in that way, Dear John offers up something rather unique -- the dynamic between Tyree and his autistic father, played by the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins. Though the film never comes right out and says it, Tyree's inability to express himself, his awkwardness and discomfort with emotional directness, stems more from being raised by an autistic single parent than from some old-school "man's man" approach to the world. It's a refreshing approach to a stereotypical character, and Tatum, who has never shown this much range or subtlety in the past, rises to the occasion. His tearful moments are heartbreakers, not because the director pushes the audience by ladling a syrupy score over the scenes or prods his actors toward histrionics, but because Tatum and the screenwriter have created a unique three-dimensional character whose terse exterior makes it so difficult for him to release the pent-up emotions roiling inside him.
Be aware, this is a markedly somber movie. Because it treats Tyree's internal life with such clear-eyed intimacy, Dear John is as much a psychological drama as it is the kind of love story that will resonate with hopeless romantics, and everyone involved deserves credit for finding just the right tone to keep both these elements at the forefront. It's a surprisingly effective spin on a very old-fashioned story.