There was a time when Lasse Hallstrom was a director of some note, but lately he's just become the delivery system for Nicholas Sparks' brand of confectionery romance drivel. To be fair, he's been more successful than most. A couple of years ago he helmed the modestly successful Dear John, certainly the best since The Notebook sent scores of women to the fainting couch to dream of rain-soaked Ryan Gosling. Now Hallstrom's back for Safe Haven, which follows the tried 'n true Sparks formula...up until the moment it seems to get hijacked by M. Night Shyamalan.
Not literally, mind you, but Shyamalan is famous for only one thing and it happens in Safe Haven with horrible results. Sparks must have thought he was so clever, pulling the rug out from his many detractors with this surprise swerve, but he forgot that a good twist only works if the rest of the story is worth a spit. After singing and dancing her way through three straight films with diminishing returns, Julianne Hough keeps her feet on the floor as Katie Feldman, who when we first meet her is dodging cops in an effort to get out of town. She's running away from something, or someone, and hops a bus headed to Atlanta. She reappears in the sleepy town of Southport, North Carolina, where the first thing she does is buy a house as far from civilization as possible.
Of course it isn't long before she attracts the attention of the locals, especially hunky and sweet single Dad, Alex (Josh Duhamel). He's instantly smitten, and his too-cute-for-words daughter Lexi makes fast friends with her, helping to pick out house paint. Soon, Alex is loaning Katie a bike to get around town, inviting her to the beach, and making her a part of his family's life. But she's scared, and there's pain in his past, too. Neither is really explored in any meaningful way, and their budding romance develops quickly and in exactly the way one would expect.
Hough's talents lie in her physicality and perky demeanor, both of which are completely suppressed here, making for a dour one-note effort. Katie isn't at all interesting outside of her deep, dark secrets, and the script labors to find things of worth for her to say. There's more potential in Alex's story, as a father flying solo with a young daughter and rebellious son. Duhamel has developed into a capable and charming leading man, crafting what little spark he can muster with Hough completely out of whole cloth.
Occasional diversions are spent with Detective Tierney, a foul and moody cop with a special hatred for Katie that manifests in drunken binges and rages. We know he's bad because Hallstrom shoots all of his scenes like something out of a horror movie. Police stations have electricity, right?
The supremely talented Cobie Smulders is woefully underutilized as Katie's nosy neighbor, who has some secrets of her own which come to light in the melodramatic final act. We're talking gunplay and burning houses and all sorts of other things that don't belong in a Sparks story, yet are almost always there. It's possible that some will see the big reveal coming, but it's doubtful many will think Sparks has the guts to actually pull it off. He does. Points for brazenness.
While a predictable chick flick, Safe Haven is never dull. It's not particularly good, either. For a Valentine's Day excursion, it'll suffice. Just don't expect anything more than that.