Nicholas Sparks has become such a massive force in American romantic films that it only takes a few signifiers to recognize his work. A beach setting, with marshes in the background glinting with sunlight. A couple, almost always white, either in casual resort wear or bathing suits, embracing. There's always something dark looming, be it a secret from the past or a tragedy the characters don't see coming, but the glowing smiles of the lovers overcome it-- these are movies painstakingly engineered to bring its fragile audience just to the brink of raw emotions before planting them back in the pastel-colored, soft and generous Sparksian world.
Safe Haven, the latest film to roll off the Sparks assembly line, follows every one of those instructions to the letter, though he fiddles with the formula enough here that longtime fans might be wooed. The darkness in Safe Haven comes not from some looming future tragedy but from the past, as Katie (Julianne Hough) tries to start a new life in Southport, North Carolina while her abusive husband Kevin (David Lyons) tracks her from Boston. The parallel narrative structure is unusual for a Sparks film, as we watch Katie flirt and fall for local shopkeeper Alex (Josh Duhamel, 16 years older than Hough but who's counting?) while Kevin, a detective, hunts her like a bloodhound.
The contrasting styles of a stalker thriller and a fluffy romance could lend Safe Haven some interesting wrinkles, but director Lasse Hallstrom has no idea how to play out that tension, offering pointless misdirection about Kevin's real identity and revealing clues about how he'll hunt Katie down well after the audience has noticed them. He's more comfortable with the brighter romantic scenes, thanks to experience on the likes of Dear John and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The North Carolina locations are sumptuous as ever, and Alex's two moppets (Noah Lomax and Mimi Kirkland) are actually cute, at least when not saddled with dialogue. Hough and Duhamel have no chemistry whatsoever, and their characters are bland and featureless as a bowl of grits, but you paid money to see them romance each other in bathing suits, and they dutifully comply.
Even though it's essentially the same as every coastal Southern town depicted in a Sparks novel, Southport and its easy way of life is surprisingly alluring, and credit to production designer Kara Lindstrom for the effectively weathered general store that Alex owns, and Katie's bungalow in the woods that's the kind of place we'd all run away to, abusive husband or not. Safe Haven's February release is obviously timed for Valentine's Day, but it works as a mental summer vacation as well-- when you get bored of watching Katie and Alex gaze at each other or the convoluted plot that keeps them apart, you can admire their summer clothes and the coastal greenery and start counting down the days until your own beach vacation.
Until, that is, the film's climax, which includes one twist you definitely saw coming-- that abusive husband wasn't going to stay away forever, now was he?-- and one you might not have, a twist so gutsy it will probably be all anyone talks about after. As it turns out, you can complain all you want about Nicholas Sparks's conflict-free stories, but when conflict is introduced it totally ruins the gauzy vacation vibe. Safe Haven doesn't have a whole lot to offer, with a plot so familiar and stars so uninterested in each other, and its resolution only undermines what it's truly best at being-- a cheap North Carolina vacation.