‘Dear John’ doesn’t live up to Sparks’ legacy

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Scott Garfield

Channing Tatum (left) and Amanda Seyfried star in Screen Gems’ romantic drama DEAR JOHN.

Peterson Hill

Nicholas Sparks writes in the form of Greek tragedy. This isn’t to say he reaches those heights, but merely to say that his stories seem predestined, because his characters enact predetermined fates.

Now, Lasse Hallstrom has adapted an uneven effort from Sparks’ book, “Dear John.”

Hallstrom, who is no stranger to stories of sentiment, seems to be a good match for the likes of Sparks. Both men can layer on the heavy-handed sentiment like too much syrup filling a plate of pancakes.

The movie stars Channing Tatum as John Tyree. John is a soldier on leave in the spring of 2001 to his coastal Carolina hometown. His visit coincides with the spring break of Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Like all the women in Sparks’ books, she has a heart of gold. Instead of heading down to Cancun for a week with friends she chooses to help restore a house that was destroyed by a hurricane the fall before.

In two weeks, their love blossoms, and they have decided that after his tour is up in a year, they will settle down together. While he is overseas, their love is told over a series of letters that they write back and forth.

However, with the sad fate of Sept. 11, 2001, John feels the urge to reenlist. He does this without consulting her. Of course, she is upset by the prospect of her beau being half a world away in a land where he could easily lose his life. Eventually, the letter he dreads comes. She has found another man, and they are engaged.

This is just the central structure of the story. There are two supporting characters in the film that are crucial to the story. The first is John’s father, played by the fantastic Richard Jenkins, who brings a weight and gravity to the role that is far and beyond the best thing in the film. Mr. Tyree, as Savannah acutely observes, is mildly autistic. She knows this because her neighbor Tim (Henry Thomas) has a son with autism. It wouldn’t be Sparks without some illness looming around the story.

The subplots in this movie are the best part of the film. These story lines are somewhat believable, except for the fact that John doesn’t know his father has autism. There is a tender story that goes along with the relationship that John has with his father that stems from his father’s love of rare coins, giving these scenes actual depth.

Jenkins, who is as good an actor as any working today, brings a weight and seriousness to his role that isn’t felt in the rest of the film. This isn’t saying that the acting is bad. On the contrary, Tatum is the best he has been on screen since “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” I still think that he has a ways to go before he’s an actor to reckon with.

The real disappointment, though, is Amanda Seyfried. She has a wooden presence to the screen. I didn’t believe her once when she was on screen.

The scenes between Tatum and Seyfried aren’t believable. They don’t hold any on-screen chemistry. Jenkins and Tatum hold more chemistry then they do. The couple falls in love because, well, they are in a Nicholas Sparks’ adaptation. The war that separates the lovers is an arbitrary device. John shows no commanding patriotism that would make an audience believe that he was compelled back to service. I left the theater with more questions about why characters acted the way they did then anything else.

But, the scenes with his father, however few, are compelling and provide more emotion than the main love story. I felt myself pulled back and forth by the competing story lines while never being able to settle into one of them.

There has been one fantastic film made from a Nicholas Sparks novel, and that is “The Notebook.” It captures the rush and zeal of new love while also providing the audience with real conflict that doesn’t seem as manufactured as “Dear John” does.

2 out of 4 stars

Bottom Line: “Dear John” has some really nice moments, but a movie isn’t made on moments. This is by no means a bad film, but there just doesn’t seem to be anything happening on screen for most of it.