Safe Haven (United States, 2013)

February 13, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Safe Haven Poster

It's pointless criticizing a Nicholas Sparks movie for being a Nicholas Sparks movie. Sparks, like Barbara Cartland before him, delivers exactly what his fans want: romance between two attractive people. He tugs at heartstrings, acts like an onion on tear ducts, and provide the dose of sappy fantasy that allows his readers to escape into a world that's about as real as Middle Earth. This kind of thing inevitably works better in writing than in movies. Reading a Sparks novel allows one's imagination to enter the equation. Watching one of his stories adapted on screen has exactly the opposite effect: it neuters the imagination. This is soap opera, pure and simple. It's trash - entertaining and escapist, perhaps - but trash nonetheless. Overcoming the contrived plot points and painfully obvious "twists" makes it a difficult task to concentrate on the basic, critical character interaction.

In Safe Haven, Sparks gives us two familiar romantic types. There's the incredibly attractive, spunky girl with a tragic, mysterious past. Then there's the incredibly attractive, sensitive guy with a tragic (but not so mysterious) past. The movie takes a little while to get Alex (Josh Duhamel) and Katie (Julianne Hough) together, but such foreplay is necessary in a movie like this. Eventually, they inch closer to one another, develop feelings, and engage in some PG-13 sex. Things seem to be going smoothly until a dark figure from Katie's past (David Lyons) shows up waving a gun, being mean to everyone (even a little girl!), drinking vodka out of a water bottle, and making it pretty obvious that he's not just a nice guy who has been misunderstood.

I will admit to being surprised by one thing in the movie, because it's so far beyond the genre's DNA. That is to say, it would easy enough to accept in a different sort of movie but is more than a little offputting in a Nicholas Sparks romance. Outside of that, the movie goes to great pains to remind us of its pedigree. There are postcard worthy shots of landscapes bathed in golden sunlight, romantic scenes that take place in the pouring rain, and a cloying application of the phrase "love conquers all."

The acting is fine for the movie. Josh Duhamel steps away from his Transformers persona to do a decent job as a leading man in a romance. He's charming and charismatic and interacts well with his co-star, Julianne Hough. My reaction to her is much the same as it has been in her other roles: the camera loves her but she doesn't necessarily love it back. Her acting skills could use a littleā€¦ refinement. Then again, this is a Nicholas Sparks movie, so thespian talent plays a distant second to physical appearance. Duhamel and Hough make an appealing couple and that's all that really matters. David Lyons hams it up as the bad guy to the point where his performance is laughable. The only things missing are the black hat and long, pencil-thin mustache.

Once upon a time, director Lasse Hallstrom made substantive, emotionally forceful movies. Lately, however, he seems to have lost his way. Although I liked his recent Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, it was sandwiched in-between two Sparks movies. Apparently, he has now become the go-to guy for the author. Hallstrom is good at putting sentiment on-screen but there's a fine line between something that touches the heart and something that triggers the gag reflex. The filmmaker once understood where that demarcation was, but I'm no longer sure that's the case.

Hey, I'm not the target audience for this, any more than I have been for the many other Sparks novel-turned-movies. From time-to-time I have enjoyed them in much the way that one enjoys a tawdry paperback read on the beach during the summer. Mostly, though I find them forgettable, predictable, and a little annoying. I like romances but prefer for them to be smart and fresh - two qualities that don't apply to Safe Haven. The film isn't awful but it's tiresome in its relentless lack of originality. Sadly, that's precisely the quality that will draw 90% of its audience into theaters.

Safe Haven (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2013-02-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1