Safe Haven is the umpteenth adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel and the second that has been directed by Lasse Hallström (who previously made Dear John). This one is a little different from the other Sparks stories though in that it is a mystery as well as a romance. But those going into Safe Haven expecting The Notebook redux will come out of it terribly disappointed as it quickly degenerates into a Sleeping With The Enemy rip-off and is undone by a convoluted story, contrived characters and a lot of shameless manipulation on the part of the filmmakers.
The movie starts with Katie Feldman (Julianne Hough from the Footloose remake and Rock Of Ages) frantically trying to catch a bus out of town while being pursued by relentless police detective Kevin Tierney (David Lyons from ER and Revolution). Katie manages to escape his clutches and ends up in the town of Southport, North Carolina where she looks to start a new life free of personal connections and avoid questions about her past. However, she soon catches the eye of Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel from the Transformers movies), a widower with two kids who is, of course, is looking to fall in love all over again. Soon the two of them are making small talk on a canoe or in a restaurant to where the audience is saying to themselves: “will the two of you make out already?”
In all fairness, both Hough and Duhamel do make for a rather appealing couple onscreen if you can get past the usual cringe-inducing aspects of romance movies like this one. Hough, in her first role that doesn’t have her singing or dancing, has a wonderful earthiness about her which makes her more believable in this part than you might expect her to be. As for Duhamel, he never overplays his role as Alex which is a relief, and he has a strong chemistry with Hough as well as Mimi Kirkland and Noah Lomax, who play his two kids.
But what really sinks Safe Haven is the ludicrous subplot involving Kevin, the obsessed detective who is intent on bringing Katie to justice for reasons that become clear as the movie goes on. Now, before we discover the connection between Kevin and Katie, this movie just feels like a Sleeping With The Enemy knock-off. Once that connection is revealed, however, Safe Haven becomes a complete rip-off of the Julia Roberts movie to where everything in the story feels contrived and utterly manipulative.
Lyons does his best playing a detective with a lot of problems on and off the job, but eventually his character of Kevin Tierney becomes nothing more than someone simply designed for the audience to hate. As he gets closer to finding where Katie is hiding out, his actions inspired a lot of unintentional laughter in the audience as he does incredibly stupid things that would have gotten anyone else killed long before the movie’s climax.
Safe Haven also raises a lot of logistical questions such as how anyone could have found Kevin appealing for more than five minutes or why Katie’s escape from her hometown only took her so far away from it. Furthermore, one character gets stabbed by a knife in a seemingly vulnerable spot (it is never shown where exactly) and yet somehow manages to recover quickly to be featured in the rest of the movie.
But perhaps the most confounding part of Safe Haven comes at the end where a character is revealed to be something other than what they appeared to be. It’s a ludicrous move on the part of the filmmakers which threatens to add a supernatural element to a story, which doesn’t need it. It also calls into question much of what exactly happened between two specific characters throughout the movie, although it’s doubtful that many will want to watch it more than once as you will be scratching your head in disbelief.
As a director, Hallström has been all over the map. He has given us such brilliantly made movies like My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules, and he has also given us the cloyingly manipulative Dear John. His movies always walk a fine line between honest emotion and sentimentality, and this one falls deep into the latter category. While he still is great at getting strong performances from the actors he works with, Hallström cannot overcome the story’s inherent silliness and lack of originality. The fact that he spends the movie’s last half shamelessly manipulating the audience is highly unforgivable.
Despite a strong cast, Safe Haven is already one of the first really bad movies of 2013. Its story is nothing new, and the situations and characters are so convoluted that you have to wonder what went wrong in the transition from the written page to the silver screen. The only thing worth remembering about this movie is the lovely small town in North Carolina where it was filmed. People would be doing themselves a favor by taking a vacation there instead of subjecting themselves to this film which we have seen made before (and better).