I have one name for you: Nicholas Sparks. Depending on who you are and whether you have immediate access to a restroom, you may, like my brother, wish to throw up immediately. Nicholas Sparks … Some names can kill.
For a full decade, Sparks’ novels have been the lifeline of American love stories (“The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember”), and for those with a preference for cheese and unrequited love, Sparks adaptations can often be deeply satisfying. On the other hand, it’s a good thing they only come around every other year or so. Otherwise, all that cheese would mean way too many calories.
And now it’s that time again. “Dear John” — adapted from a Sparks novel and directed by Lasse Hallstrom (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Cider House Rules”) — is everything we’ve come to expect from a Sparks story and, what’s worse, a whole lot more. More goo and sap, resulting in a kind of chaotic pizza-pie disorder. As for the love stuff, there’s plenty of that, too. In fact, there seems to be too much of everything, and Hallstrom has his hands full jam-packing the whole lot into a tight 100-odd minutes. Fortunately, he’s one of Hollywood’s most capable and cooperative artisans: two traits that endow the story with generous benefits.
First and foremost, “Dear John” is extremely pretty to look at. Starring Amanda Seyfried (Hollywood’s first stop for any story that involves a relationship) and beefcake beauty boy Channing Tatum, the visuals are lush, drenched in golden sunlight and relentlessly, mercilessly romantic. In the United States, “Dear John” opened on the same weekend as the Super Bowl, most likely as an alternative consolation prize to women whose menfolk were glued to flatscreen TVs as they stuffed themselves with ribs and popcorn. My guess is that, having left the house and settled in a multiplex theater seat, some women wound up sighing wistfully for frothy beer and muddy quarterbacks.
Neither are to be seen, since the couple in this story are good, sober people who “don’t drink, don’t smoke and never sleep around.” They get their kicks from nature and volunteer work, which makes them sound boring but to be fair, they’re just intent on “doing the right thing” — a curiously recurring line between two obvious hotties. But that’s the way it works in a Sparks story.
The movie opens on a gorgeous South Carolina beach in the spring of 2001. John Tyree (Tatum) is a U.S. Army Special Forces operative on leave to visit his dad (Richard Jenkins). Savannah Curtis (Seyfried) is a college student on spring break. They meet — she in denim shorts and halter top, and he in surf pants and nothing else — and over the course of two weeks, they fall deeply in love, saying the kind of things to each other that would make my brother comatose with embarrassment.
But at the end of that time, John must return to service and Savannah goes back to school, and the pair throw themselves into a deluge of letter writing — pages and pages that declare their undying love, until they see each other again. Because John’s whereabouts are kept top secret and this was back in the day before Twitter, Savannah is kept in an analog bind of applying pen to paper and wondering where her true love could be.
John, for his part, says he wants nothing more than to be with Savannah “for as long as I possibly can.” But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happen and the patriot (or warmonger) in him wins out over love. Though discharged, John re-enlists, and when that tour of duty is over he enlists again. And again. Savannah waits and hopes as the world moves on to ever-niftier communications devices and navigation systems that enable everyone else to get in touch, any time of day or night.
In the meantime, John rolls into town to see her when he can, which is, like, not often. Then there’s John’s dad, who’s suffering from mental health problems and needs his attention, too. With so much to keep him anchored at home, John continues to go off in suspiciously unrumpled camouflage uniforms, climbing into military planes with a weary, heroic air.
In another age and another war, John’s obsession with the cause may be better explained and understood. But here, it’s unclear what his motives are other than, to quote “The Hurt Locker,” that “war is a drug.” Having avoided nicotine and alcohol and shenanigans of any kind, it looks like John got himself hooked on another, more dangerous addiction.
The story skims over that part, though. “Dear John” isn’t really interested in John, or even Savannah — it just wants everything to look nice and pristine, like a well-kept suburban living room.