The fifth screen adaptation of a novel by Nicholas Sparks (Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe) is so manipulative that its tepid love story never reaches simmer, let alone boil. Tatum plays a motherless working-class soldier on leave back home in Charleston, where he falls in love with Mamma Mia!’s willowy Seyfried, who’s rich but noble (she builds houses for hurricane victims and fusses over the autistic son of single dad Thomas).
Because her new beau is about as expressive as an oak tree, Seyfried urges him to write everything down in letters, and their chaste whirlwind courtship morphs into a long-distance correspondence as Tatum is deployed around the globe. But the movie is called Dear John, so some time after he re-ups following September 11, he gets one of those kiss-off letters informing him she’s moved on.
When he returns to visit his ailing father (Jenkins, the only affecting cast member), the former lovers struggle to prove who can be more perversely selfless. Hallström, whose Chocolat and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape showed more nuance, presides over characters either so tragically stricken or impossibly saintly that the feel-good ending is both a foregone conclusion and an insulting betrayal.