If you’re a fan of Nicholas Sparks and the stories he tells in his novels and the films developed from them, then you’re not going to find much fault with Safe Haven. It’s a pretty film featuring a very pretty place and very pretty people living out a pretty fantasy about love and second chances. If that’s your cup of tea, then it’s the perfect choice for Valentine’s Day at the movies. If you’re looking for something more, however, you best look elsewhere.
Julianne Hough (Footloose, Rock of Ages) steps away from her singing and dancing talents to play a woman on the run from her past. Her flight from danger lands her in Southport, North Carolina, a tiny, picturesque boating town that’s little more than a rest stop for most people passing through on buses. But something about the sounds of the seabirds and the water moving against the piers and shorelines appeals to our heroine, and she decides to stay. She takes the name “Katie”, finds a job as a waitress and a place to live far away from neighbors and curious eyes doing her best to disappear.
Thing is, she’s too pretty to not be noticed by Alex (Josh Duhamel), owner of the town market and a recently-widowed father of two. According to the oh-so-helpful townsfolk who know everything (it is a small town, after all) and clue Katie in, Alex lost his wife to cancer two years prior, and it just about destroyed him. He managed to hold it together for the sake of his kids, however, and so just about everyone in Southport has hopes that he’ll find some kind of peace and happiness.
Of course, Katie has her own problems and knows she can’t form attachments. She knows that the people she’s hiding from, most notably the cop who almost caught her in Boston (David Lyons), won’t stop looking for her. She can’t have friends, can’t fall in love, and can’t risk hurting anyone else, no matter how sweet and appealing Alex and his family might be.
If you think that line of reasoning lasts more than 30 minutes of screen time, then clearly you haven’t seen very many of these movies.
Director Lasse Hallström, the talented filmmaker who brought you Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and who directed another film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, 2010’s Dear John, brings a steady, patient hand to telling his story. He lets his settings — the beaches, marinas, and woodlands of Southport, North Carolina that have been charming TV and movie viewers ever since Dawson’s Creek found its way to the airwaves — complement the beauty of the actors moving through them, and it’s very possible that you might leave the film more in love with that place than you were with the story you just watched. It’s no wonder movies and TV shows keep getting made there — if a Nicholas Sparks-style romance could take place anywhere in the real world, it could certainly be there.
The problem lies in the fact that audiences have seen this story before, and no amount of talented storytelling and filmmaking can change that. This is Sleeping with the Enemy for the 2010’s, and time has done little to change how the story goes or where it ends up.
As such, you’ll find very few surprises as the plot unfolds, secrets are revealed, and the characters fall in love, fall apart, and fall into one another again. In fact, at times it feels like screenwriters Dana Stevens (Life or Something Like It, City of Angels) and Leslie Bohem (Dante’s Peak) followed a checklist of things that had to go into the screenplay to make the perfect date night film. Girl with a wounded heart and a secret to hide? Check. Guy who had love and lost it tragically, now wounded himself and just getting by raising his kids alone while hiding his ongoing grief? Check. Cute, precocious kids who seem more clued into everything than their dad? Check. Danger slowly closing in, threatening to ruin any love and happiness these two wounded people might discover together? Check.
Call it “Romance by Numbers”, with roles that can be filled by beautiful but limited actors that aren’t asked to do much more than deliver their lines and look off into the distance soulfully. In that respect, the casting of Hough, who needed a break from film musicals after two flops in succession, and Duhamel (Transformers, Life as We Know It), who’s quickly proving to be the poor man’s Chris Pine, looks absolutely perfect. They do what they’re called upon to do and they do it well, or well enough to make the film watchable.
In the end, Safe Haven won’t top the list of the most memorable film adaptation of Sparks’ work — that honor still belongs to The Notebook. But it’s certainly not the worst of the movies, either.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Starring Josh Duhamel, Julianne Hough, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons. Directed by Lasse Hallström.
Running Time: 115 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality.
-Felix Albuerne, 1059 SUNNY FM