By Glenn Whipp/For the Associated Press
The movie is called “Dear John,’’ and, yes, there’s a character named John and, yes, he’s a soldier who, sure enough, receives dozens of letters from his sweetheart back home, including one emotionally wrought missive that begins “Dear John’’ and ends with him vowing to permanently switch to e-mail.
And because this earnest romance comes from a Nicholas Sparks novel, death and disappointment hover over the events, ready to strike _ and strike often. For Sparks, grief is good. Maybe greed, too, given the number of times he has recycled the same themes.
Certainly, if you’ve seen “Nights in Rodanthe,’’ “A Walk to Remember’’ or “Message in a Bottle,’’ you know the drill and you’re either on board with the box of tissues or waiting in line to see “Avatar’’ for the umpteenth time while your date suffers for the both of you.
“Dear John’’ opens with its soldier being wounded in the line of fire. Then the way-back machine takes us to a happier time when John (Channing Tatum) met Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) in the spring of 2001.
John is on leave from his Special Forces unit, visiting his father in South Carolina. Savannah is home on spring break, helping a family rebuild its hurricane-damaged house. He’s broody and shirtless. She’s bubbly and pure. He has a dark past. She doesn’t drink or smoke, though she does curse “in her mind.’’
Sure, it sounds corny. But director Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat’’) and screenwriter Jamie Linden give the whirlwind romance an appealing, straightforward decency, and Tatum and Seyfried click rather effortlessly. They’re not Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams from “The Notebook,’’ but they’ll do.
John returns to Germany, and the lovers promise to write for the remaining year of his service. But then 9/11 happens, setting into motion an awful series of events that feels overwrought even by Sparks’ operatic standards.
It’s easy to understand why Sparks revisits death and loss. His mother was killed in a horseback riding accident when she was 47. His youngest sister, the inspiration for the main character of “Walk to Remember,’’ died of cancer at 33. His father lost his life in an automobile accident at the age of 54.
These events clearly inform his writing, but, by now, there’s the feeling that Sparks uses grief as a sales gimmick. The ending of “Dear John’’ feels manufactured and patently false. Seyfried tries to sell it, but you can tell that she’s having a hard time believing the words coming out of her mouth.
There’s also a subplot involving John’s relationship with his uncommunicative father (Richard Jenkins) that doesn’t take hold because it’s so thinly sketched. Nevertheless, the movie’s most emotional scene comes between these two characters. The scene doesn’t come from the novel, nor does the final fate of the couple, which differs significantly from what Sparks wrote. Whether that’s an improvement is an assessment best left to the hankie-carrying members of Sparks’ fan club.
“Dear John,’’ a Screen Gems release, is rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence.