Dear John -- Film Review

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"Dear John" does center on a Dear John letter, but it takes a few unexpected paths. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that the film, while heartfelt and directed by multiple-Oscar nominee Lasse Hallstrom, is dramatically stillborn.

The mad passion at the center of the movie raises the temperature not one degree, and all the sentimentality that surrounds the movie -- an autistic child, a shy, emotionally stunted father, a wounded vet and later a character with a stroke and another with cancer -- feels like so many tugs on the heartstrings.

"Dear John" needs to attract a sizable female audience to succeed at the boxoffice. Despite the impending Valentine's Day vibe, this looks like a long shot because of a complete lack of chemistry between the film's two leads, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried.

The scene is pre-9/11 along South Carolina's picturesque seashore, though the geography takes a while to make itself known. A guy and gal meet by chance. Savannah -- of course this Southern belle is named Savannah -- is from a wealthy family, but she's a sincere, likable young woman. John is a quiet though intense Special Forces soldier visiting his dad while on leave.

Dad (the wonderful Richard Jenkins) is obsessed with his coin collection and little else. Because one of Savannah's closest male friends (Henry Thomas) has an autistic son, Savannah makes the mistake of concluding John's father is similarly inflicted rather than just emotionally closed down. This blunder causes the couple's one blowup; only it's three of Savannah's male friends who wind up with bloody noses and injured bodies. That John sure packs a mean punch when aroused.

Nonetheless, their two-week idyll together inspires true love -- or so the script by Jamie Linden, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, insists. It's hard to tell given Tatum's wooden performance. John's tour of duty will end in 12 months, but then comes 9/11 and his whole outfit re-ups.

Letters sail back and forth between the two, covering vast stretches of Earth, but then comes that inevitable letter from Savannah. When John does return home ages later, he's in for a few surprises but not enough to stir the pot let alone add spice.

Seyfried gives the character and her relationship all she's got, but she can't do all the heavy lifting. The romance is too one-sided, and frankly, you can't blame her for steering her life into another channel.

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Because the movie does derive from a novel, all the peripheral characters -- John's Special Forces buddies, his peculiar father, the autistic child with a dad who has a singular fondness for Savannah plus her well-to-do family and circle of friends -- might have added texture to the tame romance. In the film version, they come off as characters meant to trigger responses rather than flesh-and-blood people.

In "The Cider House Rules," "Chocolat" and "My Life as a Dog," Hallstrom has directed films that delicately juggle sentiment, drama and comedy, but here things have gone awry. The film takes itself much too seriously, yet its characters exist in a realm of fiction, never coming alive as actual human beings. The production is decent but nothing really inspired. The film disappoints on most levels but most of all as a romance.

Opens: Friday, Feb. 5 (Screen Gems)
Rated PG-13, 102 minutes