"Safe Haven," the latest weepie from a Nicholas Sparks novel, takes close to two hours to get where it's going — the intersection of Lovers Lane and nowhere. Starring Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel, this sloppy sentimental journey is long on beauty shots, short on depth and seriously intent on tugging your heartstrings. Indeed, it demands you reach for those tissues. Sob.
The real cause for tears is that Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallstrom finds himself in the Nicholas Sparks business these days. "Safe Haven" follows 2010's syrupy "Dear John" after the filmmaker made a brief detour to make "The Hypnotist," his first Swedish film in years (it's still awaiting a U.S. release), and the delightful "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen." In "Safe Haven," there's none of the real emotion he tapped in the acclaimed "Cider House Rules."
Adapted by screenwriter Dana Stevens, the film's narrative follows the same basic course laid out in all of Sparks' work. If you are unfamiliar with the highly emotive road always taken, there's a girl, there's a guy, there's a major life-altering obstacle to their happily ever after. It was war and cancer in "Dear John," war and death in "The Lucky One," dementia and time in "The Notebook," which remains the best. In case you're wondering, eight Sparks novels have been adapted thus far; there are another eight on the shelf and the author seems disinclined to end the misery-loves-company cycle.
The pain in this particular film starts early — in Boston where Katie (Hough) has long brown hair, fear in her eyes and blood on her hands. Soon she's clipped and bleached those locks and slipped away from a scary detective named Tierney (David Lyons). A bus drops her in the seaside warmth of Southport, N.C., where she rents a rustic cabin in the woods, gets a waitressing job at a local fish joint, and catches the eye of the town's hunky widower. Alex (Duhamel) is still reeling from his wife's tragic death and being a single-parent to two cute kids — Josh (Noah Lomax) and Lexie (Mimi Kirkland). He happens to own the local grocery store, which conveniently has everything Katie needs, soup to nuts, and paint if she's in the mood to spruce up the cabin.
Slowly — oh, so slowly — but surely Alex and Katie fall in love. They don't say much, a good thing since the dialogue is predictable and mostly irritating. There is a little tension at first — flashbacks in case we've forgotten that Katie is on the run, or that Det. Tierney is weirdly obsessed with her case. Still, life in the warm summer glow of Southport is pretty much smooth sailing while director of photographer Terry Stacey is given plenty of time to get postcard shots of Katie and Alex at the beach, canoeing through the swamp, kissing in the cabin.
Little by little Katie relaxes and starts to feel, gulp, safe. She even strikes up a friendship with another young woman. Jo (Cobie Smulders) is the philosophical sort, turns up whenever Katie needs to talk, and really likes the light — filtering through the trees, in the distance.... Just once, could they have considered some subtlety?
To his credit, Duhamel works hard to make Alex more of the man he should be, trying to put some flesh on his character as well as exposing plenty of his own on-screen. He's particularly sweet with the kids and young Mimi is one to keep your eye on. Hough is another matter. She hasn't figured out how to stop "acting" the part. Nothing about Katie feels real and at times the conversational rhythm is so off it is painful to watch.
Crisis, when it comes, lands on the Fourth of July, you know, fireworks. It's one of the many moments the filmmakers use to underscore that Katie and Alex may be great together, but she really cares about the kids. She would probably make a really terrific mother, despite the knife and the bloody hands and the wanted posters that are now plastered across the nation. She's really a sweetheart. I'm surprised they didn't send the message in a bottle too…
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release