A romantic drama about a soldier who falls for a conservative college student while he's home on leave. 

Mawkish romantic melodrama creates no sparks.

In the rose-coloured but often tear-stained world of Nicholas Sparks’ novels and the movies they’ve inspired, star-crossed lovers face illness and death and are transformed as a result.

So it is with Dear John, the latest screen adaptation of a Sparks novel. Sure, there’s a market for this brand of romantic sludge. The Notebook sold more than $US115 million worth of tickets worldwide, a handsome return for its $29 million budget. Nights in Rodanthe rang up a decent $84 million globally and Dear John, which reportedly cost just $25 million, fetched nearly $74 million in its first four weeks in the US.

For non-Sparks fans, this turgid melodrama is likely to inspire boredom rather than tears and emotional highs. The lumbering screenplay by Jamie Linden follows US Army Special Forces specialist John (Channing Tatum) and college student Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) as they meet at a South Carolina beach. He’s on leave from Germany, staying with his father (Richard Jenkins), an obsessive coin collector who can’t show or express emotion, and she’s enjoying the spring break.

Their idyllic two weeks together nearly ends with a hiccup when he has a fight with one of her friends, a hint of his troubled past, but they pledge to keep writing to each other and to resume their romance when his Army stint ends in a year.

As John is getting ready to return to the US, the catastrophic events of 9/11 prompt him to decide to extend his tour of duty, which naturally doesn’t please Savannah. Their relationship hits another speed bump when she tells him she (rightly) believes his dad is mildly autistic and he gets angry. That hadn’t occurred to John before, or ever been diagnosed? Evidently not. Savannah’s neighbour Tim (Henry Thomas) has an autistic son, Alan (played by Braeden Reed, who does have that condition), and she’s keen to open a summer camp for autistic kids.

Without giving away any spoilers, suffice to say further heartache and angst lie ahead, and those coins become an awkward metaphor for soldier John and his battles in the Middle East and at home. Director Lasse Hallström does his best to try to manipulate the audiences’ emotions but the moods feel forced and synthetic, not helped by corny dialogue ('I have faults John, you’ll see"... 'You’re all that matters to me") and a soundtrack peppered with sappy songs.

One wonders what attracted Hallström, who in his prime directed classy films such as Chocolat, The Cider House Rules and What's Eating Gilbert Grape to this syrupy material: a fat pay cheque, I guess.

Tatum has the kind of matinee good looks and hunky body which some females may drool over, but here, at least, he’s lumbered with immobile features, displaying three expressions: blank, lovey-dovey, and pained.

An engaging actress, Seyfried has a far broader range but struggles to make sense of a saint-like character who has no vices: doesn’t smoke, drink or, as John puts it, 'sleep around," and only uses cuss words in her head.

Their romance lacks passion and there’s only one lovemaking scene, tastefully filmed. Come to think of it, good taste is in short supply here.


In Cinemas 04 March 2010,
Thu, 01/07/2010 - 11