Dear JohnDirector Lasse Hallstrom’s first movie in four years, Dear John, feels half-hearted. Working with a screenplay by Jamie Linden (who wrote the powerful We Are Marshall), based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook), Hollywood’s best director starts with refined, beautiful scenes of young lovers on a beach in Charleston. As the story of two self-sacrificing lovers comes undone, so does Dear John. What’s left is an empty exchange between selfless characters competing to do themselves in.

That might be alright if the result was involving, as is typically the case with Lasse Hallstrom’s movies, such as Casanova, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, or his best picture, Chocolat. Instead, we get vacant Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and blank John (Channing Tatum), each saddled with sacrifice after sacrifice. The only person in the movie with something close to a sense of purpose is Savannah and her goal is to open a camp for kids with “special needs”, not necessarily because she loves the work; she says they need help, so Savannah feels a duty to serve others. So does everyone else in this sad, forlorn movie. John serves in the military merely as something to do and, later, as an evasion of reality. Watching this pair deny themselves for two hours is tedious.

With a theme that one must live for the sake of others, anyone can see where the plot will lead. But it isn’t convincing in Mr. Hallstrom’s hands. He can’t resist focusing on life, which means showing the couple in lingering close-ups and focusing on singularly meaningful pieces of property, such as rare coins that are rich with history or a dish with a simple yet elegant pattern. His tendency to evoke people in motion, fleetingly in love with life, people, places and things, only makes one impatient with the zombies these characters become. John used to be a tough guy; he serves in the Army and likes to surf and that’s about it. Savannah is a rich kid; she goes to college, builds houses for charity, and seeks to serve the disabled. They act like a brochure for national service. They talk in slogans. They both lack an ego.

Add an apparently unemployed family friend (Henry Thomas) and his son, John’s father (The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins), and America’s worst act of war (appallingly described as “buildings falling” with no mention of war let alone those who started it), mix in cancer, autism and a guitar-driven soundtrack more suited to 1970s southern California than early 2000s South Carolina and Dear John disappoints. Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) and Tatum (Stop-Loss, Coach Carter) have decent moments as they exchange letters across a jumbled timeline but they are reduced to holding up the morals of the Peace Corps, an ideal which, it turns out, is undramatic. Having the hero plead for Savannah to tell him what to do after he was shot by unnamed enemies is more sadistic than romantic. Even the presumed “benefits” of Savannah’s altruism don’t come off: one never sees the completed charity house and we never lay eyes upon those who will own it.

Lasse Hallstrom remains one of most talented artists in pictures. He is a masterful storyteller and he makes marvelous movies that celebrate life. Unfortunately, Dear John is not one of them.