Thursday, February 25, 2010

He Said, She Said Reel Dialogue: DEAR JOHN

JM: Dear K, I think we need to talk about Dear John.

KM: Ok, let's get super sappy and start.

JM: So, let's about young love on some random local beach community where the guy is a black sheep and the girl comes from Southern high society, then he goes off to war -- 'cause he's also a soldier -- and gripping emo-drama ensues. Must be another insipid Nicholas Sparks adaptation.

KM: You know, maybe because it was near Valentine's Day and I wanted to have a good time, but the movie's first hour made me warm and fuzzy. I was along for the ride and was okay with it. But then, blech! Gone. No more good feelings. It really gagged me. Maybe there is only so much sweet I can take!

JM: Look, here's the deal. For the most part, I'm with you. I mean, this being a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, the story is never going to rise above standard romantic boilerplate; the conflicts will never be anything other than trials of love lost, and the solution can never be reached by any plot development more complex than death (Oops! I might have given something away!). But for the first hour, when it's all about charm and loveliness, when we are only receiving vague foreshadowing of the upcoming emotional vomitorium, the film is watchable enough.

KM: That's what I am saying. And, it certainly is not hard to watch the hunky Channing Tatum or the lovely Amanda Seyfried. Both actors are the best part of this film, by far, and they have quite the chemistry brewing. They are as talented as they are "easy on the eyes."

JM: I quite like Seyfried and Tatum as actors, and the film is directed by, of all people, Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat), who gives the film more directorial cred than any Sparks movie has ever possessed. But at the end of the day, no wonderful actors and no strong direction can save the day from a story like this, which only functions as an emotional conveyor belt.

Continue reading after the jump....

KM: I really went from being lulled to being really pissed. You said it best when you hinted at contrived tension. It seems Sparks doesn't believe "happily ever after" could ever occur.

JM: Right. Nicholas Sparks -- who wrote the novels on which many films have been based, like The Notebook and Nights in Rodanthe and A Walk to Remember -- has only one gear, and it is sullen contrivance. Plain and simple. He writes to jerk artificial tears. His works effect the viewer like two drops of saline solution. And it's tiring. Predictable, annoying, and tiring.

KM: That is what I meant by "I got pissed." Look, I like to get all emotional and cathartically vent my feelings, but filmmakers gotta earn it. It's no fair to concoct a world with situations that are just so far fetched and not gonna happen... all in the name of, as you say, "jerking tears." Not right. Angers me.

JM: Forgive me, but I can't get off this Nicholas Sparks thing. I read an interview with him a while back in which he seems to be living in a fantasy world where he is the greatest living author on the face of the planet. Like he speaks to the masses like no other writer ever has. And, you know, I guess he's right -- weak-willed saps across the country proclaim The Notebook the greatest romantic film of all-time, and they made Dear John the number one film in the country in its first weekend. Of all the films that could've knocked Avatar out of the top slot, it was this one. That's some powerful manipulation.

KM: I have never understood The Notebook. Literally, I sat there dumbfounded for two hours. "Uh, I don't get it. This is complete bull." Not one note in The Notebook earned a tear from me.

JM: Why should it earn a tear? It comes from the brain trust of Nicholas Sparks. He doesn't earn tears, he wrings them from an unsuspecting populace.

KM: But we are not talking about The Notebook, we are talking about Dear John. I am not sure it deserved to be the one to topple Avatar, but I understand what put it over the top... females. Everyone thinks the only story to write is one that men can relate to. I think Dear John proved what Sex and the City proved a year ago: humans without penises want to see movies, too. Sadly, though, we are all so hungry for a film where we see ourselves on screen, that we put up with an awful lot of crap when we get one.

JM: It's so true.

KM: Ultimately, Dear John is poop. It is not the worst film on the planet and as you said, it is probably Sparks' best one, but it still stinks a little too much.

JM: Did I say that? Well, I guess it is, considering the source. But that's not saying much, is it?

KM: I just really don't get why solid, well-crafted films can't embrace female audiences. I just don't get why, when producers knuckle down to earn some female bucks, it always has to be sap, shoes, and/or sex (I mean "love").

JM: A little background before we close with our grades.

KM: Yeah, sorry. Go for it. Some people may still actually want to know what the film is about. Shoot.

JM: Tatum plays John and Seyfried plays Dear. No, kidding. She's Savannah, a rich college student at home for the summer...the kind of home where they have constant social gatherings on the lovely beachfront properties. He's on leave from the military and walks around brooding while his autistic dad (now there's an appropriate, un-manipulative element! What the hell are you thinking, Richard Jenkins?!) sits at home staring at a coin collection and making lasagna. They meet and fall in love in an hour, and then he reports back to the army...and then 9/11 hits. What might have been an interesting cultural context for a smarter movie is just another turn of the plot in Dear John, where in a series of letters the lovebirds engage in emotional warfare of the sort that only happens in movies. Without giving too much away, the letters unveil a colossal misunderstanding that is purposely meant to screw with us, and the rest of the movie is spent unraveling an obligatory plot twist that completely disrespects our if we expected any more.

KM: That is precisely the point at which the film falls apart -- the montage letter scene. It was actually interestingly-edited, but represented the end of my tolerance with the film's plot contrivances when the script injected lunacy in order to create tension.

JM: We talk very critically of this film, and rightfully so. But what you said about the film's first act is right. It is formulaic and tedious after a while, but the actors have charm and chemistry -- and the film, in its own exhausting way, works for a little while. Does what it's supposed to do, kinda sorta.

KM: Yeah, it does.

JM: But when John goes off to war, and the letter writing begins, and we start to see and feel the gears grinding toward simpering inevitability, that's all she wrote. The film flies off the rails and falls deep into a river of cloying sentiment and false conflicts. Once we get to the end, it becomes clear the film's sole purpose was to bait us into falling for its screenplay contrivances.

KM: Ha, literally, that was all she wrote. Very funny.

JM: Film is such a precious and powerful art form that I become personally offended if someone uses this art I care about so deeply as an emotional magic trick. Film is a manufactured form, to be sure, but the best films capture truth and speak to the heart. Dear John is a sanctimonious heart-tugger that is not simply made, but engineered. And that is the worst sort of cinematic falsehood in my book.

KM: Okay, okay, so how about we quit bashing it and just grade this sucker? I will go first. I give Dear John a middling, lame C. The really sad thing is, it could have been a B.

JM: Aiming for mediocrity! Awesome! It starts as formulaic and eventually becomes insufferable. I hope everyone involved enjoys their money, because the only thing they will receive from me is a C-.

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