Part romance and part thriller, Safe Haven is an unexceptional film, as boring as it is overdramatic and as predictable as it is pretty. Like most guilty pleasures, however, its prettiness is its saving grace, and the film’s charming actors and beautiful locations make it a watchable, though uninspired, tale of two damaged lovers.
Adapted from the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name, Safe Haven tells the story of Katie (Julianne Hough) and Alex (Josh Duhamel), two improbably attractive yet exceptionally dull people looking for a second chance at love. That’s not to say that this film is any less melodramatic than your usual Sparks fare–it opens with a bloody, barefoot and brown-haired Katie fleeing from some indeterminate threat. In the very next scene, however, Hough’s (truly horrible) brown wig is ditched for her pretty blonde bob, and the darkened streets of Boston, Massachusetts are replaced by the southern charm of Southport, North Carolina. In other words, despite director Lasse HallstrÃ¶m’s half-hearted attempts to infuse a sinister undertone to the proceedings, Safe Haven is ultimately as bland a film as any Sparks adaptation before it.
The aforementioned threat is Kevin (David Lyons), an increasingly unhinged Boston detective obsessed with finding Katie. Katie’s past isn’t fully explained until late in the movie, but the particulars of her history are abundantly obvious to anyone who has ever seen a Lifetime movie. The film never commits to the thriller side of the story, however, and Kevin’s scenes are more irksome than menacing.
Fortunately, the film’s love story is more compelling than its half-hearted attempt at suspense. After settling in Southport (for no real discernable reason), Katie begins a hesitant courtship with local convenience store owner Alex. As per Sparks mandate, Alex has his own baggage: he’s a widower raising two young kids by himself. With some encouragement from neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders), Katie and Alex embark on a relationship full of Sparks clichÃ©s: there’s a canoe ride, a sudden rainstorm, spontaneous dancing and a revelatory letter. The only thing that manages to be surprising is the fact that some of these scenes are delightful nonetheless.
Duhamel seems to get more likeable with every passing scene, and his easy chemistry with everyone from the kids to Katie helps make this derivative story moderately interesting. Hough, in her first non-dancing lead role, is sympathetic as Katie, but only really comes alive in scenes with Alex’s children (played by charming young actors Noah Lomax and Mimi Kirkland). Katie’s meant to be damaged and reserved, but Hough’s reticence is stiff and uninteresting. Nonetheless, together Hough and Duhamel are appealing enough to earn a certain amount of sympathy when Katie’s past inevitably catches up with her.
The dÃ©nouement of the film is ultimately as conventional as the beginning and any opportunity Safe Haven had to explore how the broken find love again is missed. Moreover, the film’s one genuine twist is so bizarre and has such little bearing on plot that I’m inclined to pretend it didn’t happen. With a story so unimaginative, that’s probably the best approach: take your joy where you can get it and ignore the rest.