Breaking from the expected formula of sunsets, walks on the beach, and terminal cancer—though all three are present in some capacity—Safe Haven, the latest from Nicholas Sparks’ line of picture-postcard cheese, bills itself as a “romantic thriller,” which adds an element of danger and intrigue to the spectacle of pretty people finding each other. It’s tempting to say those two elements go together like oil and water, but the film barely attempts to integrate them at all until the third act. Before then, Safe Haven is a McDLT: on the hot side, a gauzy love affair between a woman seeking refuge on the North Carolina coast and a handsome widower with two kids; on the cool, a police procedural about a hard-living detective on a quest to track her down for murder. And much as with the McDLT, the two sides come together in an unappetizing fashion.
The pulse-pounding opening—in the sense that one has to have a pulse to experience it—has Julianne Hough dashing incognito to the first bus out of town, pursued by a detective (David Lyons) who’s determined to apprehend her. Hough wends her way to the quiet, idyllic coastal town of Southport, North Carolina, where she takes a job waitressing at a seaside restaurant and retreats to a rustic fixer-upper in the woods. But determined as she is to be alone, no woman is an island, and she quickly befriends an advice-giving neighbor (How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders) and the devastatingly handsome widower (Josh Duhamel) who runs the general store. Meanwhile, the detective wants her for the first-degree murder of her abusive husband and will stop at nothing to throw this doe-eyed maniac behind bars before she kills again.
Director Lasse Hallström, whose promising early films (My Life As A Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) have led to unthreatening later ones (Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, the previous Sparks adaptation Dear John), is far more comfortable with romantic fantasy than generic cop-thriller material. There’s some theoretical appeal to the story of two emotionally damaged people learning to love again—“theoretical” because the film needs better actors than Hough and Duhamel, and richer conversation than a shared enthusiasm for kale. But the cutaways to this cop-on-the-edge plot are jarring and lacking in conviction, and when the whole tortured mess comes together in a twist-filled third act, Safe Haven becomes a full-blown calamity. There’s some novelty in the biggest twist, though: It’s only tangentially related to cancer.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Safe Haven’s Spoiler Space.