Julianne Hough as Katie Feldman
Josh Duhamel as Alex Wheatley
Cobie Smulders as Jo
David Lyons as Kevin Tierney
Cullen Moss as Deputy Bass
Mike Pniewski as Lt. Robinson
Ric Reitz as Police Chief Mulligan
Mimi Kirkland as Lexi
Noah Lomax as Josh
Juan Carlos Piedrahita as Detective Ramirez
Southport, North Carolina is a sleepy little southern vacation town on the East Coast where everyone knows everyone and few new people show up very often. Which makes it the perfect place for Katie (Julianne Hough) to disappear to, changing her name and her hair and moving into a small house outside of town where no one can bother her or find any clues about her. Because that will raise no suspicion whatsoever.
The latest Nicholas Sparks opus to come to the big screen, “Safe Haven” does not use any tricks with memory or memory loss to create easy pathos and melodrama so it is some sort of step forward. No, it uses children and dead mothers for that.
Expecting more from a Nicholas Sparks novel is certainly too much to ask. Certainly director Lasse Halstrom (“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Dear John”) has realized that his second time around, offering up well-crafted froth with nothing underneath.
After escaping a desperate-looking Boston police detective (David Lyons), Katie quickly decamps to Nowhere, North Carolina where she immediately gets a job as a waitress (good thing there’s no recession going on) and soon bumps into local general store owner Alex (Josh Duhamel), who apparently lives in some time warp back to the 1930s when general stores still existed. As with any good Sparks adaptation, it is clear they are destined to be together due to the simple expedient of being the two best looking people in town.
Katie, however, is wanted for murder after a domestic argument gone wrong, making her leery of getting involved in any other long term relationships. Fortunately Alex has a precocious daughter to cut through Katie’s reserve and bring them together.
The thing about “Safe Haven” and most Sparks adaptations, or melodramas in general, is that there is the stuff of real drama here. The film makes light of domestic abuse, but it does touch on real moments of a family dealing with the fallout from a mother dying young. There is even a decent stab at misdirection which could have easily made Katie far more interesting than she really is.
But that’s not what “Safe Haven’s” creators are about or what they think their audience wants (and they’re probably right about that). The characters are flat and uninspired so that they will not challenge. In that sense, they are perfectly performed by Hough and Duhamel who are equally flat and uninspired. Though, to be fair, they don’t have the best material to work from.
It could be worse. The only thing that really stops it is Hallstrom’s self-restraint. He knows how far to go to give his audience what they want, keeping the film stalled at boring without going over the edge to outright terrible.
It’s typical comfort food filmmaking and that’s exactly what “Safe Haven” is: a mouthful of cotton candy. Empty, overly sweet, and likely to kill you from diabetes.