There are certainly worse films out there in the world based on novels by Nicholas Sparks. Faint praise, indeed. But SAFE HAVEN pretends to be one of the more straight-forward tales in his stable of stories usually involving damaged people finding love, usually there's a death tossed in, and always a lovely location—in this case, the seaside community of Southport, North Carolina. The film opens up with a crime. We're not initially sure what kind, but when all is said in done, a woman named Katie (Julianne Hough) is being pursued by police and there's an APB issued for her arrest for first degree murder.
Katie narrowly gets out of town when she arrives in Southport and meets local shopkeeper Alex (Josh Duhamel) and his two kids. It turns out the classic Sparks' dead person is Alex's wife, who died of cancer a couple of years earlier. He's just now starting to emerge from his shell, and thankfully the woman in town who keeps to herself and seems not even a little interested in him is there to distract him. The other player in this drama is Katie's neighbor Jo (THE AVENGERS' Cobie Smulders), who gives the gun-shy Katie some words of wisdom about getting back on the horse with this new relationship. But the hunky Detective Tierney (David Lyons) searching for Katie is closing in.
The bulk of Safe Haven concerns itself with the rather mundane process of breaking down Katie's boundaries, allowing her to feel something for this man and his family. And as she did in FOOTLOOSE (less so in ROCK OF AGES), Hough surprised me with how well she handled the weightier material, directed by Lasse Hallström and adapted by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens. Neither she nor Duhamel are exactly breaking new ground, but they don't embarrass themselves either.
The character of Jo is a little more difficult to pin down. Without exaggerating, I thought she was coming onto Katie as a lesbian in her right mind might, but as she guides Katie to go on dates with Alex, Katie turns the tables on her new friend and pushes Jo to move on past whatever brought her to this town to hide out. I'm not sure their scenes really work, but there's enough of a twist in the third act concerning Jo that her purpose in this tale gets a little more clear.
The biggest trouble with SAFE HAVEN is that we've seen much of this before. There's nothing special about the romance aspect of the story. Hough and Duhamel make a handsome couple, and the look good in a canoe together. But the reveal of the truth behind Katie leaving and the officer pursuing her is really silly. In the end, I found the proceedings dead boring, and in a story that's supposed to generate a little romantic heat as well as tension regarding whether Katie would be going to jail or not, that's not really the goal.
There will never be another film that quite gets it as right as THE NOTEBOOK, and I wish these other films based on Sparks' books would remember that quality actors and not (just) pretty faces helping that movie work. Shockingly enough, I've seen every single film based on one of his novels (and I think there was one original screenplay as well), and while SAFE HAVEN is somewhere closer to THE NOTEBOOK in terms of quality, it still ends up feeling as romantic and sexy as a loveless marriage.