BY DAN METCALF
Clipper Film Correspondent
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality.
Starring Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons, Cullen Moss, Mike Pniewski, Ric Reitz, Mimi Kirkland, Noah Lomax, Juan Carlos Piedrahita.
Directed by Lasse Hallström.
Written by Gage Lansky and Dana Stevens, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks.
When a formula works, I suppose you stick with it. That may be a good philosophy in running a successful business (or franchise), but the outcome is often a mobile consumer base and a reputation for having a stale, low quality product (sort of like McDonald’s). That’s Nicholas Sparks’ problem, as I see it. He keeps on using a tried and true formula that produces countless stories barely distinguishable from one to the next.
A bigger problem is Р almost all of Sparks’ novels are adapted into films, and to be honest, I have real trouble differentiating any of them from one another. Sparks’ latest film adaptation is “Safe Haven”.
For those who are uninitiated with the Sparks “formula,” here it is: 1) An out-of-towner moves to a Carolina beach town, 2) The out-of-towner falls in love with a local, 3) one of the couple has a dark secret, and 4) Someone close to the couple dies from a serious illness (usually cancer).
Utah native Julianne Hough stars as Katie (which may not be her real name), a young Boston woman on the run from a terrible ordeal. During her escape from what appears to be a violent and perhaps criminal act, she boards a bus headed south. The bus eventually passes through Southport, N.C., a small town on the Atlantic coast, where she decides to stay and hide out.
Katie gets a job at a local restaurant, rents a secluded house in the woods and eventually makes friends with another reclusive neighbor woman named Jo (Cobie Smulders). She also meets Alex (Josh Duhamel), a local hunky shop owner, who happens to be a widower and father of two cute kids named Josh (Noah Lomax) and Lexi (Mimi Kirkland). Alex’s wife died from cancer, by the way.
Despite her reclusive ways and dark past, Katie and Alex fall in love.
In the meantime, Boston Police detective Tierney (David Lyons) is searching for Katie and sends wanted posters all along the eastern seaboard, suggesting that our young heroine is wanted for first-degree murder (flashbacks suggest Katie was involved in some sort of domestic abuse killing). There may also be more to Tierney’s obsession with Katie than his dedication to the law.
Just when Katie’s fortunes seem to be turning around, her past catches up with her, threatening her life and her relationship with Alex and his kids. There’s also a little “spiritual” interaction in the movie by way of a (sort of) surprise ending. The quasi-religious ending may evoke tears from more sensitive types, but you kind of see it coming, too.
In case you weren’t paying attention, every single part of the Nicholas Sparks formula was covered in that short synopsis (beach town, townie/out-of-towner romance, dead relative). If I were a drinking man, I’m quite sure I could easily construct a serviceable Nicholas Sparks drinking game using “Safe Haven.”
And there you have it. “Safe Haven” covers all the Nicholas Sparks bases, making it yet another carbon copy of the same basic story. Perhaps Sparks really does use the same story template, and simply changes the names and beach town names every time he writes a “new” one. I can’t argue with his success, since people keep on buying his books and seeing his movies. Then again, I can’t argue with McDonald’s success, either. I just don’t choose to eat there very often, and when I do, I don’t ever remember feeling very good about it.
While “Safe Haven” suffers from Sparks’ unoriginality, it is perhaps not as bad a film as others made from the same recipe. There is a little more danger involved than in other Sparks stories, but that doesn’t rescue the film from being downright predictable and boring.
Being a fan of Hough, I’ve always rooted for her to make Utah proud, but I’m afraid to admit that she was seriously miscast in role that requires a little more seasoning and depth. Hough is a little over her skis as an actress, and certainly too young to be playing a woman with so much dark history. With time and a little more experience, I’m sure Hough will eventually succeed (as she usually does), and be able to channel some of her own struggles into a believable on-screen character. Her time may come, but Safe Haven will not be the vehicle that drives her acting career.
“Safe Haven” is rated PG-13 for some non-gory violence, scenes of abuse, and a barely non-nude sex scene.