'Dear John': Dead Letter, By Kurt Loder

Amanda Seyfried and Tatum Channing in a valley of tears.

[movie id="421406"]"Dear John"[/movie] is a movie that tells all you need to know right in the title: soldier boy meets perfect girl; they bond, kiss, irritate a jealous suitor; boy ships out for combat, girl pines at home; love letters criss-cross the sea in torrents; she suddenly stops writing; months pass; then he receives ... one last letter. I'm afraid the boy's name is in fact John.

The most interesting thing about this picture -- the thing that might make it work for a viewer in a certain woozy frame of mind -- is the deadpan sincerity that director Lasse Hallström brings to the material. He doesn't see the story as a shop-worn anachronism (it's set in 2001, but it feels like 1944), and he doesn't milk it for heart-wringing sentiment (the plot does all the milking on its own). He plays it straight, and invites us to sniffle along if we want. There's something kind of admirable about this, I guess, in a going-down-with-the-ship sort of way.

Channing Tatum, whose formidable studliness seems unencumbered by any knack for emotional projection, plays John Tyree, a Special Forces sergeant home on leave to visit his morose father (the always solid Richard Jenkins). Amanda Seyfried, a more engaging performer than Tatum, plays Savannah Curtis, a college student who has also come home, on spring break in her case, to visit her wealthy parents. Savannah loves horses and helping the unfortunate, and she's thinking of changing her major to special education so she can open up a riding school for autistic children. I wouldn't lie to you about this. Savannah and John meet when her purse drops off a pier and he dives into the water below to retrieve it. Sooner than you might imagine, or certainly believe, they fall madly in love. But then they must part, she to return to school, he to combat duty. Before long we see him with his unit, patrolling around in dusty, sun-baked ... Afghanistan? Someplace with a lot of Arabs, anyway.

The letters begin. She's prone to write things like, "Two weeks together, that's all it took -- two weeks to fall in love with you." He gives forth with, "I miss you so much it hurts." I won't go on, although they do, God. Then 9/11 happens. In a surge of patriotism, the other soldiers in John's squad immediately volunteer to reenlist for two years. John doesn't, at first, but then he does, for reasons that are unclear to us and even to him, apparently. Back in the States, Savannah isn't happy to hear about this decision; and since we know that one of her hometown neighbors is a lovelorn single dad (Henry Thomas) with a cute autistic son, we begin to get just the faintest inkling of what will happen next.

"Dear John" is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, whose work has enabled such previous weepies as "The Notebook" and "Message in a Bottle." Although I won't be reading this particular book in this particular lifetime, I presume it's Sparks who cooked up the strained subplot about the collecting of rare coins, which allows John to establish his age by saying, "I was minted in 1980." The book was a best-seller, but who is the audience for this movie? I can't imagine many men who could witness its goopy trailer without rearing back in horror. And one woman I know who saw the film insists that it is not a chick flick. (She was put off by the scene in which John determines Savannah's suitability as a girlfriend by making sure she doesn't smoke, drink or "sleep around.") But if it's not a movie for women, and certainly not for men, that leaves, what, jaded projectionists? Developmentally challenged children? Horses?

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of [article id="1631346"]"From Paris with Love,"[/article] also new in theaters this week.

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