The first thing you need to know about the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel is that it won’t make you cry as hard as the last one (“The Notebook”).
Sparks’ books have spawned the films “A Walk to Remember,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “Message in a Bottle” and the upcoming “The Last Song” with Miley Cyrus. So your tear ducts are virtually guaranteed to get at least a brief workout during the romantic “Dear John,” in which a Special Forces soldier on leave (Channing Tatum) falls for big-hearted Charleston college girl Savannah (Amanda Seyfried).
John (Tatum) isn’t much of a talker, possibly because of the reserved nature of his possibly autistic father (Richard Jenkins), with whom John shares an arm’s-length relationship. Fortunately, the retrieval of a dropped purse captures the attention of Savannah, who is the sort of girl who doesn’t drink and spends spring break building a house for a homeless family. Hers is not unusual behavior in “Dear John”; almost everyone behaves with a courtly decorum greatly lacking in the real world.
The couple spends the rest of John’s leave together, and as long as they’re romping along the lovely Carolina shore life seems full of promise. But soldiers have to go back to war. John and Savannah promise to write, with the plan that they’ll get back together when his tour of duty is over in two years. Then 9/11 happens.
“Dear John” is at its date-movie best in the first half; it’s the sort of pretty weeper that will draw young women in droves. Later on the film gets a bit bogged down. We’d like to believe people behave in such totally unselfish ways, but such goodness and charity leave director Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules”) without many shades of gray in his melodramatic palate.
Still, there’s an audience for old-fashioned romance, and “Dear John” will please most of it. The movie looks good. It just doesn’t resemble the way most of us live.