Dear John is the fifth of Nicholas Sparks' books to be turned into a movie, which means that even if you haven't read a word of his novels, if you are a regular moviegoer you know what to expect. A wistful love story, tender feelings recorded in letters or notebooks and read aloud and then, just as you're wondering what kind of a gown the prospective bride or promgoer will pick out, someone vital to the story will bonk his head, fall off a boat and die.
Tragedy does not always arrive by boat, of course. That only happened in Message in a Bottle, in which Kevin Costner was sacrificed, despite his considerable star power. Sometimes it's a mudslide (Nights in Rodanthe, the worst of the five) or a secret illness (A Walk to Remember, the sweetest) or class warfare (The Notebook, the sexiest). Either way, the guiding hand of Erich Segal is always present, and the cast must include an Ali MacGraw type, someone famous taking a mortal or psychological hit for the sake of getting our hankies wet.
When Dear John starts, Channing Tatum looks like the likely Ali since he's flat on his back in a soldier's uniform, his blood seeping into a mud puddle. Tatum is John Tyree, a special-forces soldier madly in love with chaste, do-gooder college student Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), whom he met during a two-week leave in the spring of 2001. We go to flashbacks, and as John enfolds Savannah in his big, beautiful arms, with Sept. 11 hovering like a hurricane over the South Carolina beaches, you take bets on whether that mud puddle was in Afghanistan or Iraq, What's it going to be? Paralysis? Or straight-up dead? Either way, you anticipate a good cry, all anyone wants from a Sparks product. With Lasse Hallstrom directing, you also expect the tears to be jerked from you with class.
But there is something emotionally exhausted about Dear John. The cruel twist of fate is constructed out of nothing, laboriously maneuvered into place and then just left there, an illogical mess dampening all romance. This isn't a love story, it's a misery story that drags on, not to a dramatic conclusion but a tepid moment. Hallstrom and screenwriter Jamie Linden want to be true to Sparks' original sadistic ending, but they also want to leave the happiness door ever so slightly ajar. The result is a sense of "Huh? That's it?"
In the first half, the love story is pleasantly engaging. Tatum has the body of a football player and the rosebud lips of a perfect new baby; he's tough pretty. As an actor, he has the right air of secrecy to play an intriguing guy with an old knife wound under his eye. In Big Love you think of Seyfried as the smart girl tormented by the polygamy mess her dolt of a father has gotten her mother into, not the pretty girl. But she's seriously glamorized here: with her hair falling in golden waves she's a Breck girl with a decent brain. These two do have chemistry, and when a sudden rainstorm catches them outside doesn't it always? she leaps at Tatum, wraps her legs around his waist and latches on to his luscious lips with hungry desire. Let the consummation begin.
Or they could just tickle each other. Sparks is generally stingy with the carnal pleasures, and in Dear John we're to be diverted by matters of great societal significance. Savannah is interested in special education, in part because her neighbor at the beach, the appealingly humble Tim (Henry Thomas), has an autistic child and John has a slightly autistic father (it was Asperger's in the book). In both cases, the bad wives have fled, scared off by the autism, presumably. Richard Jenkins plays John's dad, and though the role doesn't require him to do much more than fondle a coin collection and avoid direct eye contact, his understated performance makes Mr. Tyree the film's most touching character.
The Sparks film factory shows no signs of shutting down. Two more books are being developed and The Last Song arrives next month, starring Miley Cyrus as a rebellious teen sent to live with her estranged father. From the trailer, Greg Kinnear looks darling in the dad role. Ten bucks says he's a dead man. My argument with the Sparks oeuvre is not that a happy ending is needed; a sad ending can be just lovely. But continually setting your characters up for a fall and then wielding misery like a club? We want to be moved, not clobbered.