Nicholas Sparks writes "beach novels" for people whose vacations are too short for anything heavy and whose tastes are pretty far from the cutting edge. And the movies made from his books are cinematic sand castles — sappy, old-fashioned and utterly forgotten by the next time the tide rolls in.
Dear John follows Sparks' lucrative formula with elements familiar to anyone who knows A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, Message in a Bottle or Nights in Rodanthe. It has the beaches of Carolina (South Carolina this time), a slow-paced and generally chaste romance, love, longing and loss. It celebrates simple virtues and values — letter-writing, patriotism, chivalry, people willing to do the right thing no matter if it hurts.
But Lasse Hallström's film of it is as bland as unseasoned grits.
Channing Tatum is John Tyree, a Charleston youth who is shot in combat in the film's first scene. He flashes back to his great spring-break romance, when he met the fair Savannah (Amanda Seyfried of Mamma Mia!) and life was filled with promise.
That was in the spring of 2001. By that fall, Army Ranger Tyree was in combat. All they had were their promise and their letters. In one grimace-worthy scene, Savannah and John swap painstaking letter-writing rules. He can't tell her where he is, but he'll write so often that he needs to number his letters. "Tell me everything," she pleads, and they share, well, not much that's deep or profound or the least bit romantic.
An equally shallow side story involves John's relationship with his clinically shy father and Savannah's efforts to get this obsessive, possible Asperger's syndrome-afflicted coin collector to warm to her the way the autistic son of her friend (Henry Thomas) has.
The movie makes nice points about how people's respect for the military changed after 9/11, and hits a lot of obligatory Sparks beachside moments — the cookout, the Southern-style seafood joints and South Carolina surfing.
But Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, What's Eating Gilbert Grape) and his low-heat stars can't find the pulse of this corpse. It's as pretty as a Carolina coast postcard, as warm as a New England beach in February and as romantic as a Valentine's Day TV dinner for one.