Critic’s Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA
Directed by Lasse Hallström. Starring Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons, Noah Lomax, Mimi Kirkland and Irene Ziegler. Opens Thurs., Feb. 14 at area theaters.
I’m a sucker for movies set in small towns. I love it anytime some big city know-it-all gets dropped into Podunk and sets about showing the local rubes just how backward they are, only to have the yokels flip the script and school their pompous visitor in the true meaning of life. As a lifelong city-dweller, I have no idea why I enjoy these plotlines so much. Perhaps it’s the fantasy of escaping to my own remote cabin in the woods … though it would have to have Internet access and satellite TV. What am I, a Philistine?Safe Haven, the latest big screen take on a novel by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, A Walk to Remember), isn’t one of those movies exactly, though it merges the fish out of water story I’ve just described with the overused “woman in danger and on the run from her psycho ex-boyfriend” plotline that fuels Lifetime TV’s nightly lineup. I’m no fan of Sparks adaptations, but Safe Haven is often a cut above dreck like The Lucky One.
I credit director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, previous Sparks adaptation Dear John), who does well not to get bogged down by the (often goofy) plot and keeps the focus on budding romance amidst beautiful North Carolina scenery. The director also gets solid performances out of Josh Duhamel (the Transformers series) and a couple of precocious kids (Noah Lomax and Mimi Kirkland) — though he can’t elevate Julianne Hough (Footloose, Dancing With The Stars) to anything more than a pretty bore.
Hough stars as Katie, and as Safe Haven opens we see her on the run, dodging the police at a Boston bus terminal while hustling out of town. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Hough’s character stabbed her husband, and is now being doggedly pursued by a cop (David Lyons) whose zeal for the case crosses into obsession. (I still haven’t decided if Lyons is terrible here or if he’s saddled with a god-awful part. Perhaps a bit of both …)
After ditching the bus trip in small town North Carolina, Katie sets about rebuilding her life. She gets a job waiting tables at the local restaurant, rents a house down the road from Jo (Cobie Smulders), a similarly waylaid traveler who pops in to drop advice or share in some quality girl time, and catches the eye of Alex (Duhamel) the owner of the local market and a widower (his wife died of cancer a few years back), who’s just trying to raise two kids that desperately need a mommy.
The film alternates cute scenes of Katie and Alex falling in love in a charming, rustic setting with that of the unhinged cop slowly getting closer to nailing her location. Safe Haven contains two big plot twists, neither of which I will spoil. Both caught me by surprise, though only the first really worked for me. The second left me laughing my ass off while most of the theater sobbed uncontrollably. (I apologize to the two girls sitting next to me at the screening, for whom I’m sure my guffaws — and they were loud and sustained — surely ruined the “moving” finale to the film.)
If you’re a fan of previous Nicholas Sparks adaptations (or just of cheesy, romantic melodrama in general) you could do a whole lot worse than Safe Haven. It’s well targeted to women who are looking for a date night and are capable of talking their man out of seeing the terrible new Die Hard flick. Or just watch Sleeping With The Enemy with Julia Roberts, which is a much better take on a very similar story and happens to be available right now in the “Watch Instantly” section on Netflix. Happy Valentine’s Day.