Nicholas Sparks Takes a Dump 

dearjohn.jpg

Dear John
Directed by Lasse Hallström

Amanda Seyfried has giant eyes widening out from a sunny blonde head, yet despite her cartoon appearance, she's been believable covering a wide variety of high-school types: a clique-ready ditz in Mean Girls, a charismatic wild child in TV's Veronica Mars, and even kind of a dork in Jennifer's Body. Dear John, fresh off the Nicholas Sparks assembly line, brings her into college and beyond, and while she's the right age for this character, the movie manages to make her look unconvincing (as well as, you know, scrubbed and beautiful).

She plays Savannah, a rich girl home for the summer in South Carolina, where she meets John (Channing Tatum), a soldier on leave. They go on a series of wholesome dates (surfing, community service) while John smolders and/or broods and/or spaces out; Tatum blurs all of his emotions into hard stares and downcast expressions. We're supposed to accept John as inherently virtuous; Savannah's convenient autistic kid friend warms to John just as John's autistic father (Richard Jenkins) warms to Savannah. The idea, as expressed by Savannah, that the autistic have a "horse sense" about good and evil in people is a logical diagnosis from amateur doctor Sparks, who previously floated the theory that love and faith can cure Alzheimer's, if only for a few dreamy minutes.

As in The Notebook, lovers are separated by war—nominally early-aughts Special Forces globetrotting, but for the movie's purposes John might as well be off in good ol' WWII. Their courtship cut short, Savannah and John promise to tell each other everything in letters, and this would be a truly lovely notion if they didn't write such redundant, content-free dirges, some of the emptiest everythings ever committed to paper. Reunited for a weekend in the aftermath of 9/11, they make love for what the movie seems to imply is the first time—amounting, then, to a chaste session of terror-fucking.

Shot as if through Seyfried's own golden locks, Dear John certainly has an attractive glow, crisp and blessedly free of soft-focus, but it so often appears postcard-ready that the frame looks too empty, bordering on fake. Apart from Jenkins, the supporting players linger on the sidelines, tiptoeing around Tatum's lack of charisma. Lasse Hallström gets the director credit, but working working within a Nicholas Sparks framework leaves him waiting for the other body to drop; for awhile, the movie maintains a pretty decent guessing game of how the grimly romantic specter of death will change everybody's life forever.

At first it looks as if the movie might at least raise some difficult wartime questions, but Sparks only uses real-world elements like war or autism or cancer to shuffle the tragic-romance deck. Even that shtick feels perfunctory and dispassionate here; Savannah, with her unwavering purity, gets traded through the movie like a commodity. Watching Dear John, you realize what an effective (if shameless and borderline irresponsible) piece of manipulation The Notebook was. Unlike Ryan Gosling, Tatum and Seyfried pine and suffer without a single idiosyncrasy, lest those thoughts or opinions render them selfish. It won't take horse sense to get restless.

Opens February 5

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