We’ve established pretty well that I’m not a fan of Nicholas Sparks’ novels or the movies made from them. The latest such weeper, Safe Haven, did not change my mind, but it did give me a tiny crumb of insight as to why these movies keep getting made. These films deal in characters who’ve experienced trauma, putting them in a comfortable place to heal, surrounded by sunlight, sea air, and supportive friends. Does my realization make the movie any better or any more useful to me? Of course not! Still, it’s more than I took away from the other films of his books.
The story begins with Katie (Julianne Hough) running from her house in Boston, panicking and covered in blood. A few hours later, she emerges from a sympathetic neighbor’s home with her long, dark hair changed into shorter blonde hair, and she gets on a bus to Atlanta just before a cop named Tierney (David Lyons) can stop her. On her way south, she gets off in an idyllic North Carolina coastal town — there is no other kind of Carolina coastal town in Sparks’ novels — and decides to make her home there. When she falls for a widowed father of two named Alex (Josh Duhamel, to whom the aging process does not seem to apply), she has to figure out how to hide the fact that’s she’s a murder suspect with a fake name.
You get no points for figuring out why Tierney is pursuing Katie so doggedly. The twist at the end does explain the weirdness in the actions of Katie’s neighbor (Cobie Smulders). We could use similar explanations of how Katie’s able to buy her house or why she calls her out-of-commission neighbors instead of 911 when she’s faced with mortal danger near the end. That climax also places Alex’s precocious daughter (Mimi Kirkland) in peril as well, and it’s a particularly cheap move. Lasse Hallström previously adapted Sparks with Dear John, and the author’s brand of decorous melodrama seems to bring out the worst in the Swedish director.
Julianne Hough delivers the weakest female lead performance in any Sparks movie, and I’m counting Miley Cyrus in The Last Song, so we’re in pretty rough waters here. Though the tiny, saucer-eyed Hough can be an asset in a musical comedy, playing a battered wife who’s so paranoid that she jumps every time the local cops come around proves to be too much for her. With the exception of one speech (when Katie remembers how she stood by her abusive husband), her line readings are monotonous and inexpressive. These Nicholas Sparks movies are watery affairs, and Hough’s lack of presence dilutes Safe Haven to the point where it just evaporates off the screen.
Starring Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Written by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel. Rated PG-13.