With rays of golden sunset streaking through willows, and palmettos gently rustling in the breeze, Dear John is the latest adaptation of cheese-master Nicholas Sparks' beach reading in a rustic setting; his affinity for soggy Southern beach scenes matches Stephen King's love of Maine's deep, haunted woods. Sparks has built a paperback empire by crafting homespun sentiment, Republican romance fables that push Wal-Mart values and drip of enough hokum and fake pathos to move millions of units. The formula worked wonders for 2004's The Notebook, but this grimly determined, earnest weeper takes a lot more effort. It's like trying to sprint through wet sand.
Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried (the big-eyed daughter from Big Love) are the star-crossed lovers; Savannah, a glimmering Southern belle, and John, a silently strong Special Forces badass with a gentle soul. They meet cute, have a brief, memorable affair and promise to reunite when his duty's over, but when the World Trade Center gets hit, the wedding bells go quiet. John chooses country first, re-enlists, then keeps re-upping, while she patiently waits, declaring her affection through old-fashioned love letters on actual paper. Eventually, as the years and wars (and the movie) drag on, the letters get less frequent, until one last, fateful goodbye; John can take a bullet, but he can't take that.
These two wholesome kids are perfect for each other, but are so dedicated to serving others, be it comrades in arms or disabled family members, that we're supposed to root for them to be a little more selfish and a little less selfless.
The film tries to hit so many hot buttons at once it's like following a game of whack-a-mole from a moving car. Here's a catalog of the topics addressed: OCD, autism, 9/11 survivor guilt, evangelism, military, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, ... It's a veritable month's worth of Oprah Winfrey-style topics.
Tatum's specialty is playing wounded, brooding, inarticulate brutes, duty-bound to stem their feelings and charge ahead.
He has lunk-headed charm, but he's so tightly wound he's hardly worthy of loving. Tatum has played living action figures before, but here John's such a stiff, saintly, good solider he's sort of a G.I. joke. Seyfried is a stunning beauty, and a sensitive actress, but she's too busy being angelic to find her footing. Dear John is so noble and fatalistic that it feels like self-sacrifice getting through it, which might explain the new, more upbeat ending that's been tacked on by the studio at the last minute, but it's hardly something to write home about.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.