Remember when romance novels used to be described as "bodice rippers" and all seemed to be written by the same person? Well, now they're pre-screenplays whose unholy cinematic offspring look like the result of People Magazine mating with a glossy "Romantic Getaways" calendar, that “same person” is corporate-friendly romance novelist/entrepreneur Nicholas Sparks, and the end result is cineplex-filler Safe Haven.
In the good old days when Fabio was sort of relevant, romance novels got to be winkingly self-aware about their absurdities, inviting readers to laugh with the author rather than being laughed at. And if genitals began curiously to stir, well, what could be the harm in that? Movies based on Nicholas Sparks books are like the "natural flavors" synthesized in a laboratory to trick your taste buds. The romantic-drama results remain pretty much the same: a date movie that's likely to induce friskiness in couples. But does Sparks have to treat people like total idiots in the process? (Don’t answer that.)
With Safe Haven, producer Sparks—along with his screenwriting adapters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens—risks killing the mood by introducing "thriller" elements. The picture begins with a barefoot, cocktail-dress-clad young woman (Julianne Hough) escaping a suburban crime scene. Once she goes on the run, only a few perfunctory scenes of the stock-unsympathetic Boston detective (David Lyons) on her trail interrupt the iron-clad Sparks formula.
There's no "secret sauce" here. There's a Pretty Young Thing (Hough) who, seeking solace, travels to a picturesque seaside idyll (this time, in North Carolina). There, our romantic hero immediately walks right into a job and housing (hey, don't we all?), meets another Pretty Young Thing (Josh Duhamel as a widowed, hunky, caring father of two—awww), resists romance, succumbs to romance, then almost loses romance due to the emergence of a Dark Secret.
There are cute kids in the vicinity (Mimi Kirkland and Noah Lomax), as well as wrinkly, twinkly-eyed mentors (demo appeal!), the requisite striptease for the stars (beach day!), significantly timed cloudbursts drenching the P.Y.T.s (oh God, you devil!), and letters carefully crafted to drown eyeballs. Other options available in certain models (like this one): dancing in the moonlight and a climactic fireworks display (sparks, get it?).
All this and two (count 'em, two!) inane twists that spit in the face of sense. Even if one accepts the absurd circumstances under which Hough's character turns fugitive, one has to survive a thuddingly ineffective, rug-pulling resolution involving—well, I won't say, but I will say these people have no shame when it comes to cramming in gauzy emotional-spiritual manipulation.
And it's all directed by Lasse Hallström who—despite being capable of making such films as My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen—continues to make Sparks adaptations like Dear John and Safe Haven. Duhamel can and does nominally act here, but Hough can’t be bothered to do anything other than flash toothy smiles and crinkle her dimples just so. Given the soulless-cash-grab material, who can blame her? Yeah, I know it’s Valentine’s Day. How about dinner and dancing? You can thank me later for your safe haven from Safe Haven.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]