Novelist Nicholas Sparks’ formula of life-altering love — invariably faced with some grand, operatic impediment — receives the youth-edition treatment in “Dear John,” an almost painfully earnest romance that throws the Sept. 11 terror attacks between its Romeo and Juliet. Mostly, the movie provides ample opportunity to admire Channing Tatum’s broad shoulders and Amanda Seyfried’s incandescent smile, but the narrative device that keeps them connected while geographically apart doesn’t work especially well onscreen. The result amounts to a handsome Lifetime movie that could do some modest business before taking its place on the lower shelves of the Sparks bibliography.
Other Sparks adaptations have offered the somewhat rare allure of seeing characters experience transformative love (“Nights in Rodanthe,” “Message in a Bottle”) in middle age, after they’ve experienced pain and disappointments. Here, Special Forces soldier John (Tatum) meets fresh-faced student Savannah (Seyfried) on spring break, triggering a whirlwind affair (“Two weeks together. That’s all it took,” she writes him) and the inevitable “uh-oh” effect — inasmuch as he talks about leaving the service in a year’s time to be with her, but the period is the spring of 2001.
As a consequence, the fall of the World Trade Center towers becomes the unanticipated sticking point to John and Savannah’s plans, as the two remain in contact via a series of letters, which are generally read to accompaniment from gauzy musical montages. While director Lasse Hallstrom and writer Jamie Linden do what they can to make these sequences pop, the pic takes on a drowsy quality during its extended midsection from which it never fully recovers.
There’s also too little support for the square-jawed Tatum (in a mild departure from the action roles he’s played) and Seyfried, the “Big Love” co-star who made a conspicuous splash in “Mamma Mia!” Richard Jenkins is somewhat handcuffed in portraying John’s emotionally stunted father — who occupies his days collecting coins — with Henry Thomas as a friend of Savannah’s family; still, the truth is that there’s not much to augment the central duo, and even she disappears for stretches when the two are separated.
Ultimately, the story feels as if it’s killing time before throwing the next hurdle at the couple, seizing on a favorite Sparks theme that in matters of love, life isn’t fair. Then there’s the added burden that the term “?’Dear John’ letter” possesses a secondary meaning, albeit one that originated several wars ago.
Such nuance will likely be lost on the younger audience that has exhibited a powerful appetite for star-crossed romances, but even for them, “Dear John” feels a trifle earthbound and sober. To accommodate that crowd, Sparks might want to skip current events next time and begin studying up on vampires.