Some topics bring out polarized reactions: economic recovery, gun control, Nicholas Sparks. Although the romantic fiction novelist obviously does not carry the same sociopolitical weight as the first two issues, a mention of his name nevertheless can activate anything from fangirl flails to gag reflexes in the same way heavy-hitting political issues can flame debate. Safe Haven, the newest film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, is no exception to Sparks’ track record of box office success and critical flops. At this rate, the Nicholas Sparks Movie Format should be copyrighted and given its own perfume line.
The film follows protagonist Katie (Julianne Hough) after she runs away to begins life anew in a sleepy North Carolina town. Blondes really do have more fun in this case. After bleaching her hair and boarding a charter bus bound south, she moves on from an unexplained, traumatic event in her former life. Although her ambiguous past is brought up in equally ambiguous flashbacks, the first half of the film focuses on the romantic storyline between Katie and Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower and father of two whose signs of affection are too treacly to be true.
Unrealistic as it may be, the budding romance gives the film a reason to show off some downright drool-worthy nature shots. The harbor next to the general store where Alex works is a perfectly saturated shade of baby blue. The cabin that Katie rents is surrounded on all sides by a lush, Thoreauvian forest. The beach during Katie and Alex’s first sort-of-date features clear sands and azure skies. These landscapes could give postcards and travel videos a run for their money.
Safe Haven can certainly handle the pretty. Pretty landscapes, pretty people, pretty tunes. However, it struggles to create substantial characters. Katie’s dark past is hinted at just as often as it is ignored in favor of lovey-dovey scenes and beachy montages. Alex, too, appears bland despite or perhaps because of his tear-jerking albeit cookie-cutter backstory.
The characters of Tierney (David Lyons), a policeman trying to track Katie’s whereabouts, and of Jo (Cobie Smulders), Katie’s new neighbor, purposely stay unexplained in order to build up to dramatic ta-da moments. Even so, the underdevelopment of their characters cannot be excused. Dispersed in between Katie and Alex’s gooey antics, Tierney’s scenes have a thriller feel that is out of sync with the rest of the film. As for Jo, her attempts to be a kindred spirit come off as plain awkward.
Katie’s past is unraveled in parts, but as her history grows more complete, the film also grows more muddled in genre and loses track of whether it is a romance or a psychological thriller. The film does not straddle the two genres but instead alternates between shaky shots of Tierney and cutesy montages of Katie and Alex dancing without much middle ground.
Your enjoyment of Safe Haven may well depend on whether you find the romantic-thriller crossover impressive or heavy-handed; whether you treat it as a Valentine’s date night movie or a specimen of the chick flick genre; whether you sigh in delight or disgust at lines like, “If you stay, I promise you there’s no safer place in the world than right here with me.”
Nicholas Sparks can tear at your heartstrings just as likely as he can make you weep in frustration. Bring tissues either way.