'Safe Haven' lacks novel's tension and surprise
By Kate Erbland, Special to MSN Movies
Arriving just in time for Valentine's Day, the latest paint-by-numbers romantic drama based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, "Safe Haven," hits theaters, perfectly positioning itself as must-see holiday fare. But while Sparks' recently published novel of the same name is surprisingly shot through with emotional intensity and tense sequences, Lasse Hallstrom's (who previously directed "Dear John," also based on a Sparks book) feature instead gives itself over to convention, making "Safe Haven" a safe bet for V-Day viewing, but an otherwise throwaway entry into the Sparks canon.
Julianne Hough, the former ballroom dancer still intent on shuffling into an acting career, leads the cast as Katie, new gal in tiny Southport, N.C. When we first meet Katie, we know she's running from the law (and a particularly driven detective, played by David Lyons), but it's not entirely clear why, and Katie's cagey, keep-to-herself demeanor doesn't exactly lend itself to full disclosure. But Katie is new in a town that doesn't seem to get much of anything new, and she's pretty and sweet, so it's not shocking when local shopkeeper Alex (Josh Duhamel) starts haltingly pursuing her.
Alex has his own demons -- a beloved dead wife and two adorable and scrappy kids -- but he doesn't want to hide them from Katie, and the two begin a romantic relationship in fits and starts. Hough and Duhamel possess a believable and charming chemistry, and watching them fall in love is the highlight of an otherwise inconsequential film.
Despite the fact that Sparks' novel was optioned for the screen before it was even published (the sort of thing that would seemingly guarantee an interest in and hunger for, well, the actual material at hand), screenwriters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens have taken some serious liberties with their source material. While the framework of Sparks' book remains in place, Bohem and Stevens' script is packed with tweaks and changes that seem entirely in service to making "Safe Haven" flow along in a more traditionally "cinematic" way. Unfortunately, those changes (particularly a major one involving Detective Tierney's strategy for tracking down Katie) also deflate great sources of tension, surprise and actual emotion that are present in "Safe Haven" the novel.
Like any Sparks-based film, "Safe Haven" relies on a lingering sense that something bad is about to happen, mixed in with a hearty dose of magical realism, both elements that are more intriguingly present in its original form. On its own merits, "Safe Haven" is about as satisfying and filling as a Valentine's Day conversation heart, with far less to say.
Kate Erbland is a contributing writer for MSN Movies, a critic for Boxoffice magazine, and an associate editor for Film School Rejects. She has been writing about movies since 2008, but has been thinking about movies for far longer. She lives in Los Angeles.