No one goes to a Nicholas Sparks movie looking for subtlety—or, worse, a no-hanky, love-doesn’t-conquer-all ending. No spoiler there. The poster for Safe Haven, the latest film based on a Sparks novel—features its will-they-or-won’t-they characters in an embrace (duh) in classic Sparks-movie-poster fashion. But there are twists to get to that kiss. Boy, are there ever.
Directed by Lasse Hallström (who also helmed Sparks’ 2010 contribution to heart-on-its-sleeve, vomit-on-your-shirt cinema, Dear John), the nearly two-hour Safe Haven is slow-moving and amicably dull until it takes a turn into cartoonish melodrama and runs off the rails with a last-minute reveal. A short-shorted Julianne Hough stars as Katie, a young woman we see dodging police at the beginning of the story. She hops a bus to anywhere and ends up sleeping under a pier in a small Southern beachside town. (She apparently has enough cash to rent a cabin in the woods soon after.)
Katie gets a job waiting tables and starts making eyes at Alex (Josh Duhamel), the dreamy owner of a general store and the town’s all-around go-to guy. Alex is a widower with two kids: the sweet Lexie (Mimi Kirkland), who doesn’t quite remember her mother and just wants Dad to find luuuurv, and the older, attitudinal Josh (Noah Lomax), who doesn’t want anyone replacing his mom. Alex flirts anyway. Meanwhile, Katie’s nosy neighbor, Jo (Cobie Smulders), insists on making friends with her. She’s full of advice and seemingly superfluous to the story—until she’s integrated in a truly WTF? way at the end.
Adapted by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, Safe Haven shows only bits of what exactly Katie’s running from, though the opening scene includes blood and a body. A dogged cop, Kevin Tierney (David Lyons), pursues all leads to find her, obsessing over the case. There’s another side to this suddenly alcoholic character, too, who as the film goes on becomes drunker, angrier, and more absurd, driving with a bottle of vodka and throwing things. He’s supposed to be menacing, but more likely you’ll just laugh.
When things spiral out of control, well, the film gives Lifetime specials some serious competition. And then, just like that, everything’s OK. Someone’s dead; no repercussions. Another isn’t what we thought—in a huge way—but it’s shrugged off with a smile, a kiss, possibly a tear, and the equivalent of “Huh, that’s mildly but heartwarmingly surprising.” And for fans of The Notebook—and you are legion, aren’t you?—there’s even bonding in a downpour. The best that can be said of the film is that Hough and Duhamel have a sweet chemistry, and at one point Duhamel’s Alex gives a touching speech about his dead wife. Cherish those high points, because it’s all a G-force drop from there.