Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons
21 February 2013
PG13 (Scene of Intimacy)
Much like Stephen King has Maine, Nicholas Sparks has North Carolina. Safe Havenis the latest adaptation of a Sparks novel, and its title refers to the coastal town of Southport in – you guessed it – North Carolina.
Julianne Hough stars as Katie, a mysterious young woman on the lam and pursued by police detective Kevin (Lyons). She hops on a bus and escapes to the sleepy town of Southport – a safe haven of sorts. There, she meets Alex (Duhamel), a handsome single father of two who runs a general store. She also befriends Jo (Smulders), her neighbour who moved there to escape hectic city life. She hits it off immediately with Alex’s young daughter Lexie (Mimi Kirkland), but not so much with his sullen son Josh (Noah Lomax). However, as she begins to fall in love with Alex, she can’t shake the paranoia that her past will catch up to her – and it does.
Say the name “Nicholas Sparks” and you’ll be greeted with eye-rolls and exasperated groans. This an author who has built his career around mushy romance novels, the film adaptations of which have generally not been regarded very kindly and tend to blend together in one’s mind – even all the posters look exactly the same. As such, Safe Haven is expectedly vanilla, but is not so much unwatchable as it is kind of bland.
The plot is par for the course for a romantic drama, although some thriller elements are introduced, mostly forgotten, then picked up on again. The film begins with the female lead dashing barefoot out of a house, disoriented and troubled, and then she races through a bus station with a police detective hot on her trail. It actually seems quite interesting. Then the guitar ballad kicks in, and there’s no mistaking that this is a Nicholas Sparks movie and not The Fugitive recast as a romantic drama.
For the bulk of the film, the question of what Katie has done and why she’s on the run is cast aside in favour of the escapism of the idyllic seaside town and the dreamy single dad still getting over the death of his wife. The film is beautifully-shot, and Halström does make the town look like an appealing place to get away from it all, but it doesn’t really have an identity of its own. The central romance progresses predictably and feels so “Hollywood” that it doesn’t ring true at all.
Julianne Hough, who recently hit the big-time with leading roles in the Footloose remake and Rock of Ages, is probably a better singer and dancer than she is an actress. Like the movie that surrounds her, she doesn’t seem to have a lot of personality, but she’s never “high school drama class” bad. And of course there’s the token scene where she’s in a bikini at the beach, which will unfortunately be insufficient consolation for husbands and boyfriends dragged along to see this. Josh Duhamel seems like the kind of actor who’d be the perfect fit for this sort of film, and as far as sex symbol leading men who bounce between action and romantic roles go, he’s okay. David Lyons is best known as a television actor, and it shows. It doesn’t help that his character is given just one defining trait, and late in the movie at that. Cobie Smulders is kind of underused; there were points in the film where this reviewer wondered what it would’ve been like if she was the lead instead.
The film definitely picks up in its last act with a plot twist and a confrontation, and then another twist just before it ends. However, both of these revelations make the same amount of sense in hindsight – which is to say, very little. When the audience is told what exactly Katie is running away from, it just doesn’t seem all that compelling, and it also plunges the film headlong into “Lifetime movie of the week” territory, as if it didn’t already have enough of that flavour.
There will always be a market for Nicholas Sparks movies, but after eight of them (counting this one), it seems fair to say that they’ll always be the same. Romantic films don’t have to be boring – director Lasse Halström’s earlier film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was proof of that. But where that movie was creative, buoyant, lively and thought-provoking, Safe Haven is not. Well, at least it isn't a romantic comedy.
SUMMARY: Yet another Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and one that expectedly plays it too safe. And just in time for Valentine’s Day, too!