“Safe Haven” – 3 STARS

SAFE-HAVEN poster

There are several things that you automatically expect when your watching any movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. You know you’re going to get an overloaded plot, the characters are going to be bombarded with tragedy, a main character will probably die, and whether its rain, a pond, or the ocean, you’re going to get a lot of scenes involving water. Now the water thing doesn’t bother me. I’m sure there’s a nice little story as to why water is so prominent in these films. But the other stuff along with a history of bad performances have made the other Sparks adaptations almost unbearable to watch. So I guess the question is why on earth would I watch his latest endeavor “Safe Haven”? More importantly, would it be able to avoid the habitual weaknesses of the other movies?

Well let me start off by saying that Sparks almost had me with “Safe Haven”. In fact he came incredibly close. “Safe Haven”a flirts with being a really good movie mainly because it steers clear of those crippling stumbling blocks that killed every other Sparks production. Much of the credit for this goes to Gage Lansky and Dana Stevens. Their screenplay keeps things simple, grounded, and focused, that is right up until the very end. It’s there that the story undermines everything it had done up to that point by tossing in a clunky action sequence and an off-the-wall twist that had me slapping my a forehead.

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Julianne Hough plays Katie, a young woman with a big secret. We first see her in a bus station where she hurriedly hops on a bus heading to Atlanta. Right on her heels is police officer Kevin Tierney (David Lyons) who narrowly misses catching her. Katie flees, in search of a place where she will feel “safe” Officer Tierney issues an all-points bulletin and continues to search for her. We know Katie is involved in something bad but the movie never tells us what it is all at once. Instead we are fed bits of information through a series of flashbacks.

Katie’s bus stops briefly at a sleepy little North Carolina town called Southport that sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. She decides to stay. She buys an old fixer-upper house isolated in the woods and lands a low-key job as a waitress in a fish restaurant. She also reluctantly starts making connects in town including catching the eye of the conveniently widowed Alex (Josh Duhamel). It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to guess that the two eventually fall for each other. Hough and Duhamel are actually quite good together. Hough is beautiful and fairly believable and her acting was a surprise. She did have some rough patches but overall she was much better than I expected. Duhamel is a very likable actor but I’ve yet to see him really relay emotion. He gives a good enough performance here but it’s nothing that will grab your attention. But the main thing is that they do have a nice chemistry and we get plenty of scenes with these two pretty people together. But you can only run from the law for so long and Katie’s past could eventually destroy her new life.

I was curious to see how director Lasse Hallström was going to handle this movie. He’s got an interesting résumé that includes some really good films such as “Chocolat”, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, and last year’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”. But he also made the Nicholas Sparks disaster “Dear John”. Well thankfully this is no “Dear John”. Hallström never let’s things get out of control and he’s able to keep his characters entertaining and interesting. He does get close to falling into eye-rolling sappiness at times but he actually succeeds in making this a fairly enjoyable romantic drama, something that can’t be said about the previous Sparks productions.

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Now “Safe Haven” does use some of the standard clichés that you see in a lot of these type of pictures. We get the super cute little kid doing and saying super cute little things and there are certain moments in Katie and Alex’s romance that were taken straight out of the Hollywood handbook on formulaic romance scenes. But I have to say that these things are at a minimum and they never overtake the film. There’s also the water. I mean there’s water everywhere. Of course Alex and Katie have to get caught in a rain storm and there’s a lot of scenes that include the Cape Fear River. There’s even a reoccurring bottled water that has significance. That Nicholas Sparks, he sure loves his water.

So while “Safe Haven” can be a little sappy, a little cliché, and too convenient, those aren’t its biggest offenses. Even with the surprising control and restraint that we see in the majority of the film, the ending blows most of it out of Sparks’ beloved water. There’s an early twist that I actually thought was pretty well done. But it leads to an action sequence that felt terribly out of place. It just suddenly throws too much at you and it felt pretty cheap. But then the story gets back on track with a really touching final sequence. The only problem is the filmmakers don’t leave it alone and they toss in a twist that left me shaking my head. I don’t know, if I watch it again I might feel differently, but it seemed to me that they ruined a really good ending by trying to be too crafty. Sometimes you have to recognize a good thing and let it play out.

So what’s my final take on “Safe Haven”? I’ve slammed every Nicholas Sparks production that I’ve reviewed and I was expecting to do the same here. But as I consider the film as a whole I can’t help but recommend it, even if it’s a slight recommendation. Hough is lovely and Duhamel as likable as always, and even though they’re not the most polished performers, their chemistry sold me. I’m still not one to say I now look forward to Nicholas Sparks movies, but for me this was a step in the right direction.