This year’s Nicholas Sparks romantic melodrama Safe Haven is so much like last year’s Sparks romantic melodrama The Lucky One that one might suspect Sparks wrote it using tracing paper. In both stories, a mysterious stranger with a hidden past comes to a small Southern town and gradually falls in love with a single parent who has a lovably wise elder relative and a tragic history. In both, one of them is stalked by a violent ex (and both stalkers are in law enforcement). Both tales build up to a ultimate confrontation in which things resolve pretty much as you’d expect. To be sure, there are cosmetic differences, including a gender swap: in Safe Haven, the mysterious stranger is Katie (Julianne Hough) and the single parent is Alex (Josh Duhamel). And Safe Haven winds up with a final twist so jaw-droppingly, shamelessly sentimental that I dare not reveal it. But really, the later chapters of the Saw series made more effort to be inventive than Sparks seems to make here.
The small town this time is Southport, North Carolina, a place so placid and under the radar that Katie hopes she’ll never be found there. The script by Gage Lansky and Dana Stevens carefully spends an extended part of the movie’s running time parsing out information about just what Katie is running from when she leaves Boston, huddled on a bus and pursued by the obsessed Tierney (David Lyons), but it’s clearly nothing good. (For a while, Safe Haven tries, never very convincingly, to mislead us into thinking that Katie might be a dangerous felon instead of a heroine.) At first, Katie keeps to herself, with as little human contact as possible, but she slowly blossoms in the presence of sketchily drawn new buddy Jo (Cobie Smulders) and especially Alex and his adorable children, and it doesn’t take long before Katie and Alex are trading fraught looks and taking refuge from teeming rainstorms together.
A picture like Safe Haven is as much a genre machine as any horror franchise or action movie (remarkably, this is the 8th film version of a Sparks novel in 14 years). While this one doesn’t particularly distinguish itself, it goes down smoothly. Much of that is due to Hough and Duhamel, who are good company. Duhamel was a capable co-star for Katherine Heigl in Life As We Know It, and he has a skill for light comedy and underplayed earnestness that serves him well here. Hough, in her first real dramatic lead after the forgettable Footloose remake and the awful Rock of Ages, is quite effective as Katie, especially in the early going, where she’s convincingly paranoid and haltingly reluctant to make any connection with others. (Lyons, however can’t do a thing with his generic bug-eyed bad guy role–he’s like the villain on an old episode of NYPD Blue.)
The director Lasse Hallstrom has been in the Nicholas Sparks theme park before as the man behind the camera of Dear John, so he knows how to pull these strings. He’s surrounded himself with an experienced team as well: Terry Stacey and Deborah Lurie, who respectively supply the lyrical photography and music, as well as production designer Kara Lindstrom, who makes Southport the prettiest little coastal refuge around, are all veterans of Dear John, and editor Andrew Mondsheim has worked with Hallstrom on several films and keeps things moving at a fair pace.
Safe Haven is unobjectionable Valentine’s Day weekend fodder for the most part, but one’s final reaction to it will turn to an extent on how one deals with that last twist. For me, it made the whole enterprise into something of an unwitting comedy, but there was plenty of sobbing heard elsewhere in the theater, so clearly for others it’s the crowning glory of the tale. In any case, no doubt SparksCorp will keep going, turning out another of these just a year or two down the road.