It’s tough to make a flat-out romantic movie these days.
How can one believe in true love any more when it is commoditized and packaged nightly in such reality TV trash as “The Bachelor?” And let’s not even contemplate the genuineness of the sentiments that led Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt to exchange rings on “The Hills.”
But, deep down, we all still want desperately to believe that love is real and enduring. This despite our own experiences, the divorce rate and the 10-second hook-ups of “Jersey Shore.” It’s this yearning to believe that Sparks’ movies trade on.
True love can be real. My parents had it for 50 years though, as my mother didn’t hesitate to tell us even when my five siblings and I were kids, “Some years are better than others.” Mostly true love is about doing the dishes together, raising children, arguing about which movie to see and which car to buy, and all the other mundane moments that make up daily life.
Not that anyone wants to see that on the big screen.
What works for romance in real life, and on celluloid, is humor. It can go a long way toward helping any relationship through the tough times. Which is why, I think, the most effective romantic movies these days — consider “Notting Hill” or even “The Proposal” — are rom-coms. But sadly, even the snappy ones in this category are few and far between.
All of which brings me to "Dear John," the fifth screen adaptation of one of Nicholas Sparks’ cue-the-violins loves stories.
When it comes to unabashed romantic weepers, bestselling novelist Nicholas Sparks is Hollywood’s go-to guy these days. There’s an audience for this stuff — it just isn’t me.
The movies based on his books are all imbued with a self-congratulatory mawkishness. He embraces death and illness, sometimes targeting his lead characters, sometimes merely those related to them by birth or marriage. His films should come with a warning label: Caution, hazardous to the health of characters on screen.
No matter the director or the cast, love is always depicted as a long road filled with suffering, complications and bad weather. Invariably, at some point, the heavens open up, drenching our lovers even as they embrace. (Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have Gene Kelly suddenly turn up, whistling and twirling his umbrella in one of these downpours.)
What’s fundamentally lacking in Sparks’ dour filmic universe is humor. Sure, there’s the occasional playful moment, but his characters are mostly serious, dutiful and dull. For them, life is to be endured with the only hope for joy coming from falling madly in love — and that often leads to, at least temporarily before a happy ending, heartbreak.
"Dear John" is neither the best nor the worst of the Sparks adaptations. The former is likely 2004’s “The Notebook” and the latter label belongs to 2008’s “Nights in Rodanthe,” with 1999’s “Message in a Bottle” and 2002’s “A Walk to Remember” falling in between.
This one, directed with a modicum of restraint by Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat”), follows young lovers John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried). He’s a Green Beret and she’s a college student. They meet in Charleston in 2000 while he’s on a two-week home leave; despite class differences (she comes from wealth, he doesn’t), they fall hard for each other.
Major complications keep them apart for years — including John being posted after 9/11, though it’s never named, to Afghanistan. Suffice it to say that, late in the game, not one but two significant supporting characters will die.
Why? So that our lovers can grow into better and fuller human beings and realize that true love does mean having to say you’re sorry. Repeatedly.
The real secret to any movie’s success is that we sitting out there in the dark are projecting onto the characters. They are idealized versions of ourselves. The trouble with “Dear John” and every other Sparks film is that I don’t want to be any of those people up there suffering on screen.
They’re just not interesting or smart or funny enough to justify the pain. I don’t even want to be their friend. Life is too darn short, and ticket prices for movies too expensive to waste it on them.