‘Safe Haven’ can’t hide from its sappy, flawed plot
By Ann Hornaday
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Hoping to re-bottle the lightning captured in “The Notebook” and “Dear John,” romance packager Nicholas Sparks has given his usual formula some sharp edges in “Safe Haven.” The film, which stars Julianne Hough as a woman on the run from a troubled past, opens like a gritty thriller, complete with furtive looks from under a hoodie, a taut chase through a crowded bus station and a few smidgens of blood.
Soon enough, Hough’s character, Katie, has fetched up in the quaint North Carolina town of Southport, where Sparks’s seductive fantasy of self-reinvention takes place. Quiet and wary, Katie still has elbows sharp enough to keep curious neighbors at bay, at least until an appealing widower named Alex (Josh Duhamel) manages to charm his way past her chilly reserve.
From Lasse Hallstrom, director of “Dear John,” this movie doesn’t come close to generating the sparks that made Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling such breakout stars in “The Notebook.” Hough and Duhamel are attractive enough (someone should cast Hough and Meg Ryan in a mother-daughter drama right now), and they possess an unforced ease when they’re together, but their chance encounters and cautious romantic toe-dipping add up to little more than a pretty bore. (The film comes most genuinely to life when Hough and Duhamel are joined by the beguiling Mimi Kirkland, who plays Alex’s precocious daughter with welcome brio.) When a figure from Katie’s past shows up, “Safe Haven” takes on the menacing contours of a slightly safer “Cape Fear.” (This villain is so dastardly, he’s not above smashing a booze bottle on a Fourth of July parade float.)
Even with Hallstrom’s soporific pacing and uneven tonal approach, “Safe Haven” presents viewers with the undemanding, easy-on-the-eyes escapism that may not qualify as high art but has pride of place in the commercial cinematic canon. Once Katie’s worlds collide, though, the film descends into maudlin melodrama, which in turn slides into utter ridiculousness with a preposterous plot twist. “Safe Haven” is one of those Valentine’s Day confections that satisfy your sweet tooth until you get to their weird, off-putting center. The problem with movies is that you can’t put them back in the box.
Contains thematic material, sexuality, threatening behavior and violence.