Reduced to its basic elements, the romantic fiction of Nicholas Sparks reads like a generic personal ad: “Single white character loves sunsets, horses, full moons, and walks on the beach. Terminal illness inevitable but bittersweet.” Just a few minor tweaks away from other gauzy Sparks adaptations like A Walk To Remember and The Notebook, Dear John offers the legal minimum number of changes required to let it be considered a different movie. But in a piece of reheated melodrama like this one, it matters who’s doing the heating. And for Dear John, that task falls to Lasse Hallström, the once-great director of My Life As A Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, who later settled into a career turning out polite, middlebrow prize-grubbers for the Weinstein brothers, like The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and Casanova. His approach to the material is tasteful and restrained to a fault.
Part of the problem is Channing Tatum, an actor with the strengths and faults of early Sylvester Stallone: He can be a charming palooka, as in Fighting and A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, or a block of wood, albeit one carved by God’s hands. Tatum stars as a soft-spoken Army Special Forces soldier taking two weeks’ leave in Charleston, South Carolina in the summer of 2001 before getting shipped out to far-flung places. He falls in love with college student Amanda Seyfried, and when their whirlwind courtship ends, they vow to write to each other until he leaves the service. Then 9/11 happens, a relatively brief tour of duty turns into an indefinite commitment, and the dreaded titular letter becomes inevitable.
Two young lovers half a world away from each other, separated by war, their passions kept flickering in prose: This is inherently potent stuff, even before not one but two autistic family members get thrown into the mix. But those two weeks Tatum and Seyfried spend together really have to sell the movie, and that’s where Hallström could have used some of the florid, over-the-top theatrics that Nick Cassavetes, for better or worse, brought to The Notebook. Hallström’s gentler touch reveals itself in a tender subplot involving Tatum’s coin-obsessed father (a typically excellent Richard Jenkins), but Dear John doesn’t need classing up. It needs some hot-blooded emotion.