For one brief, glorious moment during Safe Haven, you can see the movie it could have been. It happens early on during the budding romance between mysterious fugitive Katie (Julianne Hough) and young, small-town widower dad Alex (Josh Duhamel). They’ve gone on an impromptu trip to the beach, with Alex’s kids in tow, and the two lie in the sun, talking. In close-up, their hands caress the sand the way they (and we) wish they could one another. At one point, their bare shoulders touch. Neither of them remarks on it, even though we know they’re both very much aware of it. It’s a subtle but breathtaking moment. Then the rest of the movie happens.
Adapted from the novel by Nicholas Sparks, the story mixes the author’s typically swoony melodramatics with a light sprinkling of noir. We first see Katie as she desperately flees from a cop (David Lyons) who is angrily pursuing her. She boards a bus and makes her way down South to a small coastal South Carolina town, where she cuts and dyes her hair blonde. Then she proceeds to hit it off with local grocery-store owner Alex, who is still reeling from the loss of his wife some years before. He brings her small-town normalcy and comfort. She brings him out of his shell and Teaches Him To Love Again™. Meanwhile, Katie’s alcoholic, violent police pursuer back in Boston remains dogged in his attempts to find her. (By the way, he’s so alcoholic that when he breaks into other people’s homes looking for clues about Katie’s whereabouts, he makes sure to drink their Scotch as well.) And we can sort of see why he won’t stop looking for her: He’s her husband. The film treats this as if it’s a twist, but it breaks the first rule of a proper twist: If it’s something all the relevant characters in the movie already know, it’s not a twist; it’s simply a lazy, cheap screenwriting trick.
As noted previously, the movie’s not all bad. There’s palpable chemistry between Duhamel and Hough. The former particularly seems well-suited to this sort of thing: He has just the right amount of grizzled charm to be one of those wounded hunks Sparks likes so much. For her part, Hough, who built her fame on Dancing With the Stars, is a mixed bag. She can’t seem to emote very well, but she moves convincingly, and she’s actually compelling as a desperate fugitive on the run.
For some of the film’s charms we should also credit director Lasse Hallstrom. Over the years, he has become the poster boy for promising foreign filmmakers who come to the U.S. and make their career churning out tepid product. He was definitely one to watch back in Sweden, when he broke out in 1987 with the powerful coming-of-age film My Life As a Dog. His American work, mostly mainstream soft-focus fare like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, has been uneven, but he still has considerable strengths. He brings to these occasionally opportunistic melodramas an attention to craft, atmosphere, and performance that they don’t always deserve.
And so, too, with Safe Haven — at least until the movie begins to drown in the telenovela-level crud that it’s been building up to all along. We genuinely like watching Hough and Duhamel circling around one another, and the movie has a nice sense of place. That all eventually vanishes with a doozy of a third act that involves Katie’s hubby finally making his way back into their lives and a ridiculous action finale. Oh, and one final twist (this time an actual twist, which I won’t give away) that will either make you break out in holy, Sparks-ian tears or make you burn the theater down. Come to think of it, you’ll probably want to do both.