Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ “Safe Haven” is a sweet yet uneven romantic tale; the ingredients required to make a schmaltzy chick flick are either not utilized to their fullest or demonstrated in a manner that lacks connectivity.
The romance film is capable of mingling with different genres, drama and comedy being the most relevant. But when you bring something as alien as a thriller into the mix, that’s when matters get complicated. I won’t lie to you — combining loving relationships and tense excitement is a tricky matter, and in my experience, the results usually fall into the “strictly average” category. Such a scenario describes “Safe Haven,” where imbalance thrives despite efforts taken to keep the love and suspense together.
When a mysterious woman named Katie (Julianne Hough) arrives in Southport, North Carolina, questions are raised about her past. As much as she is determined to avoid forming relationships with anyone, she finds herself falling in love with a local store owner/widower (Josh Duhamel) and becoming friends with her neighbor (Cobie Smulders). But the more Katie lets down her guard, the more a dark secret from her past haunts her, and she must choose whether to run or stay.
The film’s main strength lies within the North Carolinian locale. There’s no denying the tranquil beauty of the scenery, particularly the swamp where Hough and Duhamel’s characters go canoeing and the beach where they spend time with the latter’s kids. As someone who has never read a Nicholas Sparks book or seen any adaptations of his work, I have to admit the author has an eye for making use of the natural environment to establish the mood in his stories.
On the flipside, I couldn’t help but notice the plot struggling to find its center every now and then. Half the time we see David Lyons spearhead the mystery/thriller component as he searches for information regarding Hough’s whereabouts, and the other half consists of the burgeoning romance between Hough and Duhamel. Both story components start off strong by themselves, but they don’t come together in the end as fully as I would’ve liked. Is this a love story? Is it a thriller? I give director Hallström credit for trying to combine the two, but the end result comes off as a union trying to keep itself from falling apart.
I also get the distinct impression the chemistry between Hough and Duhamel had trouble settling into a comfortable zone. The first time they meet feels more obligatory than organic, and each kiss they share emerges out of the blue without any trace of building up to those moments. Only a few scenes — their day at the beach being one of them — communicate any sense of natural rapport. And did I forget to mention the wooden dialogue? Every sentence spoken by either Hough or Duhamel is laughable, and by that I mean not-in-a-good-way laughable.
The doctrine “all looks and little skill” fits Julianne Hough perfectly; her comely appearance can only do so much to keep us invested in the film, and if she has any acting chops, I don’t see them. The same applies to Josh Duhamel, who tries his best to show audiences he can be a romantic male lead but only fulfills that responsibility halfway. Cobie Smulders, on the other hand, is competent as Jo, bringing a quirky friendliness to her role that will remind moviegoers of her role on the TV show, “How I Met Your Mother.” David Lyons also does a good job of portraying policeman Kevin Tierney; you can practically see the booze flowing through his bloodshot eyes.
In the end, “Safe Haven” makes a bold attempt to unite the love story and the suspense thriller, but it doesn’t succeed all the way. I doubt Nicholas Sparks sees this film the same way I do, but considering his popularity among readers, he wouldn’t care.
If you want to see a good example of a quality romantic thriller, you might want to rent 2011’s “The Adjustment Bureau.” Now that’s what I call a balance between love and excitement.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality.
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes
Playing: General release