I understand that according to the press notes, Dear John is not in fact a four-hour epic. But when I was in that theater, watching Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried make virginal moony eyes at each other, I swear to you I felt time stop. More than just a goopy weepie with an overload of twee songs on the soundtrack, Dear John is a test of your will and resolve; it will spend almost two hours trying to convince you that you are not nearly as good a person as these two lovestruck goody two shoes, but reader, you must resist. Otherwise you risk turning out as boring as these two blocks of wood.
Seyfried and Tatum are both actors I like instinctively, so it's a bummer to see them stuck cuddling and staring blankly at each other on the sandy dunes of the South Carolina shore (photographed beautifully, as per usual in the "based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks" rulebook). Seyfried plays Savannah, a rich Southern girl who doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs, and is spending her spring break rebuilding houses for the poor by day, and hanging glumly around outdoor barbecues by night. Tatum's John is an Army guy on two-week leave in his seaside hometown, meeting Savannah through a random act of gallantry and soon escorting her everywhere around town, with plenty of random ex-boyfriends and family friends looking on in jealousy.
Though the meet-cute is dispatched with during the opening credits, it takes forever for John and Savannah's romance to actually get going-- they're just too pure to rush things, I guess-- and before long the two weeks are over and the pair are communicating via letters (though the actual "Dear John" letter is still a long way off). This is all set in the spring and summer of 2001, so you know before too long someone will be staring in shock at a TV screen showing flaming towers, and John's remaining 12 months of duty are probably going to wind up being a lot more.
The longing that Savannah and John feel for each other might help move the story along, but Savannah is the kind of girl who swears she has flaws but never shows any (she wants to open a horse riding camp for autistic kids, for Christ's sake), and John is a reformed brawler who is now devoted to his emotionally distant and fragile dad (Richard Jenkins, rising above the material as usual). Savannah and John have about as much personality as characters in a pro-abstinence pamphlet. As the script lurches from one event to another, with no cause-and-effect at work whatsoever, we need Savannah and John's love to pull us through. Unfortunately Tatum and Seyfried look about as stuck in this mess as we are.
Fans of the book or any of Sparks's work know what they're in for, though, and may not mind being talked down to and forced to spend time with some of history's least inspired lovers. But fans of Lasse Hallstrom, who once made delectable guilty pleasures like Chocolat or the truly great What's Eating Gilbert Grape, will wonder how he lost his touch so severely. His audience is sitting itself down for a good cry, and he's handing it an empty Kleenex box.