By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: Safe Haven
SAFE HAVEN (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Lasse Hallstrom, 2013
Welcome to Sparksville, U.S. A., where men are hunky and nice, ladies are funky and nice and the stories told about them are sometimes clunky — but nice. Located somewhere between the Mason-Dixon Line and Never-Never-Land, with many of its locales borrowed from the North Carolina shoreline, Sparksville — the fictional territory of novelist Nicholas Sparks, is home to gorgeous scenery, gorgeous people, undying love, dazzling sunsets, and wide beaches full of strolling lovers. A warning though: If you have an aversion to romantic clichés, you might be inspired to flee from Sparksville, where life always seems to be a book you’re reading on an airplane. If only everyone and everything weren‘t so — well– nice.
Safe Haven, directed by that estimable Swedish-born filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom and produced by the author himself, is the eighth movie to be derived from a Nicholas Sparks novel, and like the others, including Message in a Bottle (where Kevin Costner found undying love), The Notebook (where Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams found undying love and huge box office) it’s a romantic fantasy delivered with maximum efficiency and apparently just the right amounts of warmth, coolness, poignancy, picturesque scenery, sex appeal, niceness and (let’s face it), undying love.
This time, the story has a shot of quasi-Hitchcockian suspense too. It’s a lady-on-the-run thriller, with Julianne Hough as Katie Feldman, who flees a Boston crime scene of some kind (we’re not sure what), dyes her hair blonde, heads off in a bus to Atlanta, impulsively gets off in Southport, North Carolina, is immediately hired as a waitress by a total stranger at the restaurant and fixed up with a cabin in the woods, and then wanders down to the local general store, where, on first sight, she wins the heart of the handsomest man in town, widower Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), a hunky but nice guy with two adorable kids. Simultaneously, Katie discovers her new best friend, Jo (Cobie Smulders) when she notices Jo prowling around the cabin and peering though her windows. after which Jo immediately starts dispensing sage small town advice.
And , despite the fact that Katie is feeling reclusive, she proceeds to keep on finding the most goddam wonderful bunch of people you could possibly meet or see or dream up, even if your name was Nicholas Sparks.
But don’t think that life is just a bed of small town Southern roses for fugitives from the law in Boston, who wing up in a cabin in North Carolina. All the while, she’s meeting folks in Southport, Katie is being pursued by this movie’s version of Inspector Javert of Les Miserables: Officer Kevin Tierney (David Lyons), a hard-working, hard-drinking cop who prowls the web, raids the files, harasses witnesses, puts up wanted posters naming Katie as a murder suspect and apparently won’t give up until he has the fugitive in his clutches.
Nor, it seems, will Alex, a sexy widower, with two prodigiously cute children: bad-tempered Josh (Noah Lomax) and prodigious little cutie pie Lexie (8 year old Mimi Kirkland, who heists the movie). It’s a Sparksville sort of courtship, backed up by soft country rock, full of those strolls and romps on the beach, and lazy drifting canoe rides, and picnics, and thoughtful gifts of bicycles (which Katie, unthoughtfully, at first refuses) and everything you need to fall undyingly in love except maybe a few DVDs of Nicholas Sparks movies playing on a Visio big-screen TV, by firelight.
So Katie and Alex do what Sparks people do, while relentless, half-drunk cop and woman hunter Tierney pursues her with all the obsessiveness of Javert and of Lt Gerard in the Fugitive — and he will not stop, apparently until he gets his woman — even though he‘s the kind of uncongenial dude they don’t like in Sparksville, and you probably won’t like him either, because he’s an ill-mannered bastard and a bully. Pretty soon, he’s prowling around everywhere, and he’s founf Katie’s new town, and there’s a huge fireworks show and we know it’s only a matter of time before things — well – get not so mice. We even know that Sparks has been known at times to spring an unhappy ending or two on readers and audiences. So….
I like Lasse Hallstrom’s movies, especially his wondrous Swedish childhood film My Life as a Dog and his equally beguiling American family dramas What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules. So it gives me no pleasure to assert that, despite its beautiful visuals — shot by cinematographer Terry Stacey – despite little Mimi Kirkland’s best efforts, and despite some scarily determined turns from Lyons as Tierney, I did not enjoy Safe Haven – even though I confess feeling some pleasure that this gentle but misfiring romance, which depends on character rather than assault rifles, is slugging it out at the box office on near-equal terms with A Good Day to Die Hard.
But Safe Haven has flaws and they’re not all due to the local laws of Sparksville.. (After all, The Notebook was a pretty good movie.) Some of the problems come from the story’s weird surprise ending, but a lot of them come from Ms. Hough, who arrives in this movie on the run from two bad, silly musicals: Rock of Ages and Burlesque. Hough’s performance here seems either miscast or misguided. Duhamel is an okay hunk and Lyons an acceptable heavy but Katie is a thoroughly uncompelling character: a lady-in-distress who shows little distress, a gal-on-the-run who seems less terrified than just somewhat perturbed, a woman facing a dangerous menace in strange environs and barely reacting to it, a victim (or maybe a killer) who seldom looks like she’s victimized or even worrying.
Perhaps this is intentional, an attempt to show that Katie can take care of herself – but the results severely diminish the suspense, and the narrative grip, and the pull of the story. If Katie doesn’t seem all that worried, why should we be? If Ms. Hough’s Katie seems less a terrorized fugitive with a maniac cop on her trail, than a probably well-to-do young woman on a really nice vacation, why should we feel tension for her? The first week’s box-office suggests some audiences do — but maybe they’re just happy to spend some more leisure hours in Sparksville – to have a nice time and maybe catch some undying love.