Review: “Safe Haven”

Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel star in "Safe Haven," directed by Lasse Hallström.While the name Nicholas Sparks and the word “masterpiece” will never be uttered in the same breath, there are two films (“The Notebook” and “A Walk to Remember”) that prove that the schmaltzy romance novelist’s paperbacks can be adapted into modestly affecting melodramas for the screen with the right talent.

Well, some of his paperbacks, at least. Without radical renovations on the part of “Safe Haven” screenwriters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, who clearly had a vested interest in sticking to the original story-points so as not to upset Sparks’ large fanbase, it’s doubtful that the film’s action-packed, downright loopy third act could have been respectfully dramatized by any director and cast, no matter their gifts. Just when you think the film’s climax is the silliest thing you’ve seen at the movies lately, the story throws a final curveball that may very well be one of the silliest things you’ve ever seen at the movies, period.

I would spoil what happens for your amusement, but I must restrain for the sake of those men whose wives and girlfriends will drag them to the film tonight for Valentine’s Day, as the only thing that makes the last 45 minutes of “Safe Haven” tolerable is the “I cannot believe what I am watching”-factor. If you thought the finale for last year’s Sparks adaptation, “The Lucky One” with Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling, was as broadly melodramatic as they come, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

As amusing as it is to reflect on the film’s over-the-top ending, to wonder if Sparks secretly wrote it as a parody of his characteristically hokey work just to see if his followers would take it seriously, it’s not as amusing as it would have been had the first hour not been effectively romantic. That’s right: “Safe Haven” is half a good movie, initially announcing itself as a worthy successor to “The Notebook” and “A Walk to Remember.”

The reason the first half works is that it’s virtually plotless, focused on emotion instead. After Katie (Julianne Hough) evades arrest from a clearly seedy detective (David Lyons) by boarding a cross-country bus and ends up in a lovely small-town on the North Carolina coast, director Lasse Hallström only occasionally checks up on the detective’s search for her. The film is dominated by Katie falling in love with Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower who runs the town’s general store with his two small children. It’s a conventional story, but Hough and Duhamel have wonderful chemistry that makes the budding romance a pleasure to watch. It doesn’t hurt that they’re both as aesthetically pleasing as the idyllic scenery.

But the simple wonder of a new relationship captured in that distinct Hollywood sheen eventually gives way to the aforementioned nonsense. As expected, the detective who’s after Katie has ulterior motives and, contrary to the APB he puts out, she is not an alleged murderer. When he inevitably finds the town where she’s made a new home, “Safe Haven” quickly descends into cartoonishness, the Lifetime Channel on steroids.

The film’s opening is too strong and its ultimate awfulness is too creative to classify it as atrocious. Still, there are far better ways to spend Valentine’s Day at the multiplex; “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “Warm Bodies” may not be traditional romances, but they certainly say a lot more about love. Forget “Safe Haven” until you happen upon it on cable, when you can snicker at the finale in the privacy of your living room rather than risking the wrath of the Sparks diehard sitting next to you.