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A soldier chooses duty over love in Dear John

Dear John ** 1/2

Opens Friday areawide

Dear John is the latest novel by bestselling author Nicholas Sparks (Message in a Bottle, The Notebook) to be adapted for the screen. It shares Sparks' familiar themes: a coastal setting, illness, tragedy and star-crossed lovers kept apart by fate (but not by marriage, since adultery offends Sparks' religious sensibilities).

Set in Charleston, South Carolina, the film targets young adults with the story of soldier John Tyree (GI Joe's Channing Tatum), an erstwhile roughneck who falls in love, while on leave, with Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a pretty, virginal college student he considers "too good" for him: She doesn't drink or smoke, and she builds houses for the poor. Savannah and John become inseparable and vow to write letters every day during his deployment.

Fate intervenes in the form of 9/11, and John feels duty-bound to reenlist. The waiting proves too much for Savannah, who soon writes the titular "Dear John" letter saying she's engaged to another man. Devastated, John decides to stay in the Army and, years later, performs a selfless act to help Savannah's dying husband. Sparks is fixated on old-fashioned tropes like diaries and letters. So Dear John resembles a 1940s war movie, without the Internet and with heavy mail sacks. The story, altered somewhat from the book, is fairly ridiculous, but it pushes emotional buttons (soldiers, patriotism, terrorism, cancer), and will likely trigger some audience sobs.

Surprisingly, the movie was directed by the excellent Lasse Hallström. Whatever the reason the director of Chocolat, The Hoax and What's Eating Gilbert Grape is directing a Nicholas Sparks romance, it's interesting to see what happens to a banal story in the hands of a fine director. Ignoring the mawkish narrative, you notice that Hallström creates scenes of resonant beauty, particularly those involving John and his father (The Visitor's Richard Jenkins), a taciturn man afflicted with Asperger's syndrome. The sole bond between Dad and John is coin collecting, in which John lost interest years ago, but which remains an obsession for Dad. Hallström and cinematographer Terry Stacey make John's montage reveries about coins and a childhood visit to the U.S. Mint so visually arresting, you wish the entire movie were about numismatics.

Alas, romance is the coin of the realm, so we are asked to care about the fortunes of uninteresting John (played uninterestingly by Tatum). Viewed as a collection of individual, lovely sequences, however, Dear John isn't half bad.

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