Safe Haven

You know a movie’s in big trouble if you keep murmuring things like “Love that aerial shot over the seacoast…Ooooo, great 4th of July fireworks. Wow, pretty reflections of the canoe on the water ” Constant musings on how a film looks is proof it’s not engaging you — it’s just serving up eye candy.

Such is the case, alas, with Safe Haven, the eighth and latest movie based on a Nicholas Sparks best-selling novel [most famous is The Notebook (2004)]. I have nothing against Nicholas Sparks. I got halfway through one of his novels once. I’m still upset that Richard Gere and Diane Lane had only one weekend together in Nights In Rodanthe (2008). I would love to be able to write like Mr. Sparks and laugh at my critics all the way to the bank.

I wanted to see Safe Haven for two reasons: it was helmed by one of my favorite directors, Swedish-born Lasse Halstrom. His recent film, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a charming love story about two people from Scotland on a fools’ quest among Muslims in Yemen, was on my top 10 list last year. Also, Safe Haven was shot in North Carolina — a real plus in my book. With two such positive things going for it, I was bound to love this movie, right? Wrong.

Mr. Hallstrom’s masterful hand as a director was evident throughout most of the film. All the tech credits are excellent including sound and music and set design — and the film is positively gorgeous, shot by cinematographer Terry Stacey, who worked with Hallstrom on Salmon Fishing. The story flows languorously like Spanish moss swaying in the breeze, a sweet old-fashioned tempo that offers polite time between first glance and first kiss.

So what is so wrong with this film that I gave it only three stars? Two things. The story itself and the casting. Blame Mr. Sparks for the first thing, a story about lovers who have hardly any conflict until near the end of the movie — and then there’s this twist ending that makes you groan in disbelief. Such a twist might have worked in the novel, but it sure doesn’t in the movie. Coming so close to the end of the film, you leave the theatre without any forgiveness in your heart.

But you gotta blame Mr. Hallstrom, at least partly (you have to factor in investor demands), for the inappropriate casting. He should know the bottom line on love stories — both lovers have to be equally lovable.

A frantic young woman, Katie (Julianne Hough) escapes a scene of violence and flees on a bus, ending up in Southport, a quaint seacoast town in North Carolina. She meets Alex (Josh Duhamel), the general store manager who is a grieving widower with two great kids, Josh (Noah Lomax), who is old enough to remember his mother and Lexie (Mimi Kirkland), who’s too young to remember, but longs for a mother anyway. Meanwhile, an obsessed Boston detective (David Lyons) is using all his cop powers to track down Katie as a murder suspect. Then there’s Jo (Cobie Smulders), Katie’s ethereal neighbor, who keeps nudging her to accept Alex’s courting.

Ms. Hough is a luscious young actress (memorable in Rock of Ages, 2012)) who is quite watchable as the mysterious stranger who turns men’s heads but pushes them away. Josh Duhamel (many TV credits) plays a perfectly fine, sympathetic man who a lot of women would fall for in real life. But in a movie romance, we women need a guy who is as hot as he is nice (like Channing Tatum in any of his roles, especially in the underrated Magic Mike). Alex is such a tentative, gentle lover, you want to fix him up with your younger sister — while you keep searching for someone with pizzazz and a better haircut.

With so little sizzle, Safe Haven ends up being a tepid love story where the men in the audience can fantasize all they want, and the women want to snooze. Not a good equation for a so-called chick flick.

There is all that gorgeous seacoast scenery though.

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