American novelist Nicholas Sparks likes to take broken people and put them back together through true love. Safe Haven, the eighth of Sparks' 17 novels to be adapted to the big screen, fits that format to a "C" -- as in cliche.
The result, despite a decent cast led by the intriguing and emerging Julianne Hough, is that Safe Haven is tough to endure. Unless you are specifically looking for overwrought sentimentalism and a completely predictable romance.
Less predictable in Safe Haven are two Sparksian plot twists, one of which is cloying. The other is just absurd.
Without playing spoiler, Hough plays a young Boston woman who escapes from a crime scene, which we fleetingly see in the opening sequence and more fully in later flashbacks. Our heroine soon disguises herself: Long brunette locks morph into a short blond cut hidden under a hoodie.
She then boards a random bus and suddenly decides to get off in Southport, a funky tourist town in North Carolina (where the movie was actually shot). Safe Haven now jumps between an obsessive Boston cop who is trying to track her down and Hough negotiating her new life without becoming too conspicuous, given the police warrants out for her arrest.
This new life puts Hough into the orbit of a widower (Josh Duhamel as a charming doofus) and his children (Noah Lomax and Mimi Kirkland). But that relentless cop (Australian actor David Lyons) could ruin everything. So the movie is played as an action thriller even though the emphasis is on the big-hearted family story.
On an emotional level, Sparks does do something in his novels that gets to audiences regardless of how people feel about those rigged plots. From The Notebook through Message in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe, Dear John, The Lucky One, Safe Haven and many other titles, Sparks sparks his devoted fans in ways that defy his critics.
The eight movie adaptations do the same thing, which is why Sparks-friendly directors are hired to helm the projects. On Safe Haven, the production team returned to Swedish-born director Lasse Hallstrom, who directed Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum in Dear John (2010).
Hallstrom is a pedestrian, workmanlike director who adds no adornments. He also fails to rule in the editing room, so there are abysmally edited sequences in Safe Haven that push people out of the story. Particularly in one instance, just before one of those plot twists is revealed.
But Hallstrom's cast is better than the material they are asked to handle, and better than the circumstances Hallstrom creates for them. Hough in particular intrigues audiences because, with her round face and expressive eyes, she is so unlike one of those vapid and emaciated Hollywood girls who usually seem to get these roles.
Hough helped make the Footloose remake better in 2011. She now elevates the level of Safe Haven and lets the movie explore issues related to spousal abuse and the exploitation of woman by overbearing males.
In the end, though, Safe Haven is not all that serious. Not unless you find a Valentine's Day romance to be serious business.
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