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Film Review | ‘Safe Haven’ enters dangerous territory with discordant plotlines

Film unsuccessfully tries to balance romance and thriller

Published: Friday, February 22, 2013

Updated: Friday, February 22, 2013 09:02

“Safe Haven” is the latest film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks book — and its refusal to stay within the predictable outline established by previous adaptations is its undoing.

Like nearly every other Sparks adaptation, “Safe Haven” is the story of a romance that blossoms in a small North Carolina town. Katie (Julianne Hough) flees from Boston after an ambiguous, bloody conflict in her home, the details of which are slowly doled out through the course of the movie. Detective Kevin Tierney (David Lyons) aggressively begins a search for her, but Katie escapes on a bus to Southport, North Carolina, where she is introduced to handsome, helpful single dad Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), who runs the local convenience store.

Katie settles into life in Southport: she gets a waitressing job, rents a cabin nestled in the woods, makes friends with her oddly curious neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders) and continues to attract the attention of Alex and his children. “Safe Haven” is at least aware of its own predictability here. It goes through the motions of establishing tension between Alex and Katie but does so only half−heartedly. She initially rejects his offers of a ride home or a gift of a bicycle, but soon she is accompanying his family on a trip to the beach and spending days on romantic boat rides with Alex.

It’s these scenes that are particularly unoriginal — many of them, it seems, are directly taken from the most notorious and well−known Sparks adaptation, “The Notebook” (2004). Alex and Katie frolic at the beach, get caught in the rain and take row boats to secluded ponds while the camera lingers lovingly on the two photogenic stars, both of whom spend a significant portion of their time on−screen pensively staring out at the ocean and looking attractive. The love story itself is standard fare — but at least the filmmakers know it. They lavish this plotline with the expected corniness and attempts at profundity (for example: Alex’s dead wife wrote letters to her children to be opened at different milestones in their lives). It may be predictable, but at least it is predictability done right.

Where “Safe Haven” goes truly wrong is in its desire to not just be a sappy, predictable romantic drama. It insists on being part thriller too — and this only gives the film an off−balance, nonsensical feel. While Alex and Katie are falling in love in North Carolina, Tierney, the unhinged and alcoholic Boston detective, is looking into Katie’s disappearance with increasing aggression and lunacy. He is working against his boss’s orders to drop the case. He breaks into houses, sends out “wanted” posters and gets drunk at the home from which Katie has fled. As we see flashbacks that reveal what happened the night Katie left Boston and learn the nature of her relationship with Tierney, his search intensifies and ultimately culminates in his drunken drive down to Southport to find her. The frenetic pace of this plotline coupled with Tierney’s obvious derangement simply does not work with the film’s love story. “Safe Haven” should have stuck with the romantic drama formula so many previous Sparks films have successfully abided by. Alone, neither plot is strong enough to carry the entire movie, but their intertwining only gives the film a disjointed tone.

These two storylines converge in an overly dramatic finale where Katie and Alex must protect themselves and his children from the reckless danger of Tierney when he arrives in Southport, drunk and crazed on the Fourth of July. Still, this poor execution pales in comparison to the romance−thriller hybrid’s plot twist in the film’s final minutes. It’s the kind of twist that is entirely campy and ridiculous, the kind that elicits groans and exasperated sighs from an audience. It is left unexplained and unresolved within the context of the movie itself — one final frustration before the credits roll.

“Safe Haven” had potential to stay within the generic parameters of a Nicholas Sparks movie. It’s far from award−worthy, but a romance that will at least make impressionable teenage girls swoon. But the bizarre blend of thriller and romance does this film no favors — nor does the twist it so ungraciously delivers. Perhaps the next Sparks adaptation will wisely stick to the expected fluff of a Valentine’s−Day romance.

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