Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review: "Safe Haven"

It's hard to believe that just a few years ago the phrase "based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks" would've produced only shrugs from most moviegoers. But then "The Notebook" blew up in 2004, making of stars out of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, and creating a burning desire in Hollywood to adapt other books from Sparks' Southern-fried romantic/drama oeuvre.

But here's the thing: there hasn't really been a good movie based on his material since. "Nights in Rodanthe" disappeared without a trace. "Dear John" was a dirge-like bummer, and "The Last Song" and "The Lucky One" were ill-fated coming-of-age projects for tween stars Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron.

Critics hated them, but they had respectable box office tallies for low-budget films, so along comes "Safe Haven" as the next in the Sparks line.

Like "Dear John" it was directed by Lasse Hallström, thrice an Oscar nominee and the rare European filmmaker who seems to embrace the more saccharine aspects of Hollywood moviemaking, at his own peril.

The result is a great-looking, sun-dappled story about life on the North Carolina coast that's also devoid of much dramatic or emotional heft.

It's about a woman on the run, hiding out from the law after being accused of a brutal, bloody murder. Needless to say, she falls in love with a local dreamboat, starts putting down roots and feeling secure before her haunted past shows up on her adopted doorstep.

A big part of the movie's problem is Julianne Hough in the lead role. The "Dancing with the Stars" star has mostly done song-and-dance pictures like "Footloose" and "Rock of Ages," and simply doesn't possess the sort of dramatic acting tools for a part like this.

We know from the get-go that Katie was an abused woman who went on the lam after stabbing her attacker, so the screenplay (by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens) requires her to go through some pretty major transformations -- from self-doubting victim to new gal in town coming out of her shell to strong, resourceful woman ready to take the next steps in life.

But Hough's placid exterior is more shy cheerleader than woman rising up.

Josh Duhamel is better as Alex, who runs Ryan's Port Market in Southport, N.C. He's a young single dad raising two moppets after cancer took his wife. He's been keeping his head down, he says, just trying to make a life for his kids, and when he falls for Katie it's like lifting his head up again for the first time.

Noah Lomax plays Josh, who's on the cusp of adolescence and testing his dad, the self-appointed protector of his mother's memory. Mimi Kirkland as Lexie reaches a level of adorableness heretofore unseen in cinematic children.

Katie gets a waitressing job at Ivan's, the local seafood shack, and begins a tenuous friendship with her neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders). When Alex, noticing that Katie trudges daily from her remote cottage to the shoreline every day, gives her an old bicycle, it's Jo who instructs her that refusing gifts south of the Mason-Dixon line is a no-no -- particularly not from wounded widowers who somehow find the time to keep their abs sculpted.

The story keeps shifting back to Tierney (a creepily effective David Lyons), the Boston detective who treats tracking down Katie as much more than a standard domestic murder case. "Nobody is innocent," he insists. "We bring 'em in, and the other guy sorts 'em out."

Things lead to a fairly predictable place, and an outcome that is never truly in doubt. Naysayers may dismiss Sparks' books as pap for undiscriminating mass consumption, but I think there's the bones of a good story in "Safe Haven." It just needed a different cast and crew to find it.

2 stars out of four

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