Dear John (Lasse Hallstrom, 2010)
Category: Sparks Sparks Sparks. (Nicholas, of course.) Five down, one to go! I’m on the edge of glory. If by “glory” I mean “an incredibly pointless accomplishment.” It feels wonderful hanging on this moment with you.
Specifically, this is a sad movie about letters. Oh how Sparks loves letters! I bet he’s one of those guys who doesn’t have an email address. He just lives in his big house that he built by the water and sits there every day, reading letters and trying to figure out how to rejigger his Sparks formula to reach another demographic (boring middle-aged people, teen pop stars, Christians, etc). In this book/film, he goes after the military. Don’t those soldiers go through enough?
Dear John is also a sad movie with the same title as a song from the 2010 album Speak Now by Taylor Swift. This is actually a stunningly popular category, when you take into account The Story of Us, a 1999 Bruce Willis-Michelle Pfeiffer schmaltzfest, and 2006’s (The) Last Kiss, starring
Droopy Dog Zach Braff. I never figured T-Swift for that much of a sadmonger, but I guess the evidence speaks for itself. Here are the synopses of my proposed sad films based on the rest of the songs on the album:
- Mine. A West Virginia coal film. Like a sadder version of October Sky.
- Sparks Fly. A telephone line repairman suffers a horrific accident.
- Back to December. Kevin Kline and Julianne Moore play grieving parents on a road trip to December Diamonds in Waynesville, N.C. to identify their dead son’s body. (Hat tip to Google Maps for that one.)
- Speak Now. A film about the effects of torture.
- Mean. I’m picturing Mean Girls, but Regina George actually gets killed by the bus. (Much like Anne Hathaway in One Day. #topical)
- Never Grow Up. A young boy is diagnosed with a rare disease called Peter Pan syndrome.
- Enchanted. Amy Adams plays a princess in an animated fantasy world who is transported to real-life New York City. Wait a second.
- Better than Revenge. A man successfully kills his wife’s lover, but suffers from post-killing-your-wife’s-lover stress disorder.
- Innocent. A man wrongfully accused of murder fights for his freedom. Unsuccessfully, of course. And then five seconds after he’s executed, a guy bursts into the room with the DNA evidence that exonerates him. Devastating.
- Haunted. Sad haunted house film? Let’s go with it.
- Long Live. Opposite of Never Grow Up.
My familiarity with this issue: Divorced from their schmaltzy Sparks context, there is something very cool/romantic about letter writing, particularly in this age of Twitter. I encourage all of you to make a friend who works in the wilderness with no phone or Internet access. You’ll get the pleasure of breaking important world events to them, such as the death of Osama bin Laden, or that time I shaved my beard.
The problem here, of course, is the context. Recall the bullshit that was Message in a Bottle, in which Costner’s banality and petulance were rendered unimportant by his “beautiful” letter writing. I can’t wait to hear Channing Tatum read his letters to Amanda Seyfried in dramatic voiceovers. It’s gonna be horrific.
The title of the movie comes not from T-Swift, thankfully, but rather from the phrase describing letters that women would write to soldiers in order to break up with them. This seems like a really mean trend; in fact, it really surprises that this is so much of a thing as to warrant a commonly known expression to describe it. I’ll bet you five dollars that Channing Tatum’s character’s name is John in this film. (UPDATE: I have consulted IMDb. I am correct. Pay up.)
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “While John is on leave in his hometown, he finds Savannah, a college student visiting the town. Although love was unexpected, it doesn't mean they didn't find it. With the knowledge of John having to leave for the army, their love still lives, until his re-signs on due to the 9/11 attack. Troubles invade and their love put on hold. One cannot bear it anymore; can the other?” Oh God this plot summary is almost as terrible as the movie.
What I thought of the movie: Yeah this one is really bad. Realllllllly bad. I don’t know where it sits yet in the Sparks Taxonomy of Shit (STS), but it’s definitely in the conversation with The Last Song.
Amazingly, I totally predicted how the movie was going to start: with Channing Tatum (aka what would happen if Ryan Reynolds and Josh Hartnett had a gay-baby and pumped it full of steroids) reading one of his letters in a dramatic voiceover. It’s a torturous, meaningless metaphor, ostensibly about what he thought about after he got shot. I think I might rather be shot than try to explain it here. It involves coins, though, which is a motif. There’s lots of foreshadowing going on in the first couple minutes, both about the film’s internal themes and its external terribleness.
But so then we begin the story in spring 2001. Tatum’s a soldier on leave, hanging with his dad (Richard Jenkins, slummin’ it) in their big house near the water (SPARKS THEME) in South Carolina. He meets Seyfried, chillin’ on spring break with her friends, including Jason Street!!! Oh man! I was very excited to see that Scott Porter was in this movie. And then within FIVE SECONDS I was unbelievably pissed off, when it became clear that Jason Street – Texas Forever! Clear Eyes Full Hearts Can’t Lose! SIX! QB1 of the Dillon Freakin’ Panthers! – had been cast in this film as the Douchey Friend of Amanda Seyfried. WHAT. How dare you misuse Jason Street like that! And after he miraculously recovered from his paralysis!! This was definitely one of the three or four worst things about the movie.
So Tatum and Seyfried make eyes at each other, infuriating Street, who OPENLY MAKES FUN of the fact that Tatum is in the military. I guess it’s a pre-9/11 world at this point, but still! Outrageous. In any case, he doesn’t stop Tatum from mumble-flirting with Seyfried for a few hours at a barbeque. They talk about the moon, and how it looks small even though it’s really big or some absolute bullshit nonsense that I almost vomited at. At no point in the movie are the two of them convincing as a couple, by the way. I entirely blame Channing Tatum’s shitty acting for this. Seyfried is fetching enough, but the man is just a big stupid mumbly brick wall.
So they go out again and she meets his dad, who, it becomes clear, is autistic. (Classic Sparks, by the way. It’s not enough for this to be a sad movie about the military. He’s gotta sprinkle a little autism in there as well. There is so much piling on in this movie.) Jenkins collects coins (it’s a motif), and Tatum is clearly weirded out by him, which annoyed me. But what annoyed me more was the conversation they had later that night, a conversation which, as you’ll recall, is taking place a day and a half after they’ve met. Seyfried says, “You shouldn’t be too hard on your Dad. He loves you. I can tell, even if you can’t.” Thanks a lot, toots.
It becomes clear that Seyfried is a Good Person who Builds Houses On Her Spring Break and Wants To Start A Summer Camp For Autistic Kids That Somehow Involves Horses. (The film tries to establish that Tatum used to be a Bad Boy, and that the military straightened him out, but really doesn’t do anything with that information.) There’s more vague mumbly flirting at the house that she’s building, and then it starts raining, and they kiss in the rain (JOINT SPARKS/T-SWIFT THEME), and away they go.
Their romance lasts for the remainder of Seyfried’s two-week (!) spring break. (She must go to a state school.) There's a montage and everything. Cartoon bluebirds are chirping, etc. Then on the last day, there’s some big party on the beach, with dudes in sweatshirts and shorts playing guitars, and Seyfried is sitting by herself away from the action (as any sensible person would, because there is nothing in the world that is worse than dudes in sweatshirts and shorts playing guitars on the beach). She’s moody about the fact that soon he’s gonna be Army-ing again for another twelve months, and he promises her… something. I didn’t catch it (#mumbly).
Then, kind of hilariously, she tells him that, because of all the time she’s spent with his dad, she’s realized that she wants to teach special ed! And Tatum is like, wait what? Because apparently Jenkins's autism is of the undiagnosed variety. It’s the equivalent of asking a fat lady when the baby’s due. He flips out and leaves, running into Jason Street on the way, who douches it up and Tatum knocks him out (not paralyzing him, though, thankfully) and then elbows Henry Thomas, who plays Seyfried's other friend, a Sad Bearded Single Dad Of An Autistic Son (#pilingon), in the face. He’s gone Rambo! Or at least Jersey Shore Ronnie! Seyfried should run for her life! But of course she forgives him the next day, and they agree to send each other letters.
They do that for a while, basically just biding time until 9/11. That happens. Tatum’s fellow soldiers all want to reenlist, but they're given a brief furlough to think about it first. He books it back to the States to see his
pen pal girl for literally eighteen hours, during which there is, coincidentally, a fancy party at Seyfried’s rich family’s plantation big house.
Now pay attention to the timeline here. After the soldiers find out about 9/11, they all meet to tell their captain that they’re planning to reenlist. It makes sense that this would happen on 9/12; in fact the editing strongly implies that this is the case. Their furlough occurs that weekend. 9/11 was a Tuesday, so it was the weekend of 9/14-9/16. So Tatum flies from whatever foreign country he was in to America on like 9/14 (which is absurd); at the airport, he sees people getting stronger security checks (which is edited in a really AMIRITE POST-9/11 AMERICA kinda way).
And then, on 9/14, 9/15 the latest, he goes to this ENORMOUS PARTY, at which everyone is all back-slapping and wearing blazers and smoking cigars and chilling out and acting as if the worst thing ever didn’t happen FOUR DAYS EARLIER. Now I understand that these people are rich, and that rich people generally don’t really care about problems that aren’t their own, but it’s like FOUR DAYS AFTER 9/11!! Everyone was freaking out then! There weren’t any big fancy parties! No one in America had a party that weekend!
AND THEN at the 9/11 party Seyfried’s father and his two asshole rich friends start condescending to Tatum and telling him about how the military’s gonna make sure they reenlist (“they’ll ask you to do it, and then they won’t ask, they’ll tell,” which I must be paraphrasing because if those were the actual lines I wouldn’t have been able to pass up a good DADT joke there). An outrageous thing to say to a military man in any instance, let alone FOUR DAYS AFTER 9/11! This part of the movie is so unrealistic as to be unfathomable.
So Seyfried catches wind that Tatum plans to reenlist, and she pouts about it for a while and oh Jesus I almost forgot, on the way to this party, Jenkins has an autistic breakdown in the back of their car and has to get out of the car, four days after 9/11 when his son has returned to America for 18 hours to see the girl and HOW DESPERATELY DO YOU WANT TO MAKE US CRY, NICHOLAS SPARKS? Jesus Christ take it easy for FIVE SECONDS and let us breathe and enjoy the 9/11 party! Where was I. She pouts, it’s selfish, the script calls for him to cry about it which is just asking for trouble, and finally they have sex somewhere. Whatever.
He goes back to the military, they write more letters, and then she stops writing for a few months, and then writes the titular letter. She’s with someone else. And we’re torn between saying, “it’s about time, he’s a meathead” and “eh I guess she's kind of a b.” I guess we’re supposed to believe that her new beau is Jason Street, because he was at the 9/11 party too, but I totally called that it was Sad Beardy Henry Thomas. There is no part of me that cares about any of these characters or the plot machinations at all, though. So really it's a Pyrrhic victory.
It keeps piling on. We see the shooting from the beginning of the movie. (Side note: the film's depiction of the military, what it's like to be a soldier, what soldiers actually do, etc., is really painfully wrong and aimed at teenage girls. It's almost entirely the opposite of The Hurt Locker.) So he recovers, but because there's nothing for him in America now that the girl is with someone else (I guess), he keeps extending his tours. For YEARS. Until 2007! This is just so totally glossed over as to be offensive.
Finally, he’s sent home because Jenkins had a stroke. We find out that the terrible letter that Tatum read at the beginning of the movie was actually to him. And as he sits at Jenkins’s bedside reading him the letter, Jenkins, who is barely conscious and AUTISTIC, reaches out to embrace him from the bed. It’s shameful. It’s like Gena Rowlands’s moment of clarity at the end of The Notebook, completely medically impossible bullshit that Sparks throws in to manipulate us. Piling. On.
Jenkins dies. Tatum goes to see Seyfried, who is married to (shocker) Henry Thomas. But instead of having it that she fell in love with him, we find that she married him out of pity because he has terminal cancer, and she wants to make sure someone will take car of his autistic son. And we learn, via Thomas in the hospital, that she still loves Tatum. A man she has spent time with for a total of two weeks and eighteen hours, six years ago, who spent part of that time punching a man in the face and the rest of it mumbling.
I get it, of course. But it’s upsetting to me all the same, because in The Notebook, we had James Marsden as a viable alternative to Ryan Gosling. She might have actually loved James Marsden too, which is how real life actually works. In the fantasy world of Dear John, once she’s met her soul mate, she’s not allowed to have authentic feelings for anyone else. It’s cloying sentimentality in the guise of true romance, and it’s bullshit. And I barely paid attention to the obvious ending, where Tatum uses Jenkins’s coin collection (motif) to pay for Thomas’s treatment, which gives him two extra months to live, and then after he kicks it, they see each other in a coffee shop and it’s clear that they’re going to make it work or whatever. Shoot me.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie/How I felt after the movie ended: I mean you get the idea.
How FOTB Zach Gibson related to the movie: I really enjoyed watching this movie with FOTB Zach Gibson. I theorized that, since he’s not used to the Sparks bullshit, that he would have an even stronger reaction to the hokum than I would. I was right. It was hilarious. The hand-wringing and guttural screams and incredulous rhetorical questions were too numerous to catalog. “I’m gonna kill this movie,” he growled at one particularly objectionable moment. Silly Zach. You can't kill Sparks. Sparks is the Terminator of sad. He's relentless. But after I watch Nights in Rodanthe, I will have completed the gauntlet. Stay tuned.