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SAFE HAVEN (2013) – The Review

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Before you head out to the multiplex be sure and pack up the tissues because it’s time for another heart-tugger from the pen (or keyboard) of Nicholas Sparks (whose THE NOTEBOOK was a huge box office smash). Almost a year ago the screen adaptation of his work THE LUCKY ONE hit the cinemas with attractive young actors deciding whether to give love another chance. And now with SAFE HAVEN he presents us with a story of attractive young…you get the drift. If that were the only similarity! So is this the perfect date flick for the most romantic of holidays (too bad there’s not heart-shaped popcorn)?

HAVEN doesn’t start with images of hearts of flowers. We’re hit with the sight of a young, attractive long-haired brunette (Julianne Hough) barefooted, blood-splattered (not her own), clutching a pillowcase and dashing about a Boston suburb at twilight. A concerned older neighbor gives her shelter. Later the young woman emerges as a short-haired blonde wearing a face-concealing hoodie (and the pillowcase inside it making her look pregnant). She makes her way to the bus station and quickly buys a ticket. Mere moments later a police detective, Tierney (David Lyons) is showing the woman’s photo to everyone there, including the ticket agent. But he’s too late and she’s on her way to Atlanta. Hours later, the bus makes its first scheduled stop in a quaint coastal North Carolina village named Southport. At the gas station/market she buys a cup of coffee from handsome, lanky Alex (Josh Duhamel). Strolling the harbor, she decides to end her runningand settle there. Luckily the local seafood restaurant needs more servers, so she begins work there as Katie. And it turns out the perfect home, a fixer-upper shack deep in the nearby woods, is available for rent. Through her boss and a new friend that lives nearby, Jo (Cobie Smulders), Katie gets the scoop on Alex. He’s a recent widower who’s raising two kids, surly and sullen ten year-old Josh (Noah Lomax) along with bright adorable six year-old Lexie (Mimi Kirkland), with the help of his irascible Uncle Roger (Red West). Could Southport be Katie’s true safe haven where she can start a new life and possibly a romance with Alex? But Det. Tierney’s not given up on the search for her back in “Bean town”. Will he finally track her down?

The film’s focus is the desperate journey of this young woman, so it’s surprising that the producers chose Ms. Hough who’s best known for her work in the movie musicals BURLESQUE, FOOTLOOSE, and ROCK OF AGES (and her TV stint in “Dancing with the Stars”). She doesn’t seem to have the gravitas to really pull off such a heavy dramatic role. Even with a couple of harrowing flashback sequences, the darkness is never fully conveyed. The romantic scenes work a bit better in displaying her cute, pixie-ish side. Duhamel’s not really tested in the nice guy role of that “chick flick” dream man, the sensitive widower (because live ex-wives are just too messy). He often flounders with the kids, but, gosh, he’s really, really trying. He’s simple, sweet, and almost perfect. The wonderfully attractive comic actress Smulders (so funny on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”) is squandered in the supportive best pal role (if this were in an urban setting this role would be the gay male next door neighbor). Someone get this woman a lead in a smart rom-com! Another TV actor, Lyons (star of Troy and Abad’s favorite show “The Cape”) is saddled with another cliché role as the sneering, sweaty villain (I almost expected him to rub his hands together ala’ Mr. Burns’s “Excellent!”). The kids are cute (particularly the precocious Kirkman) and the townspeople are supportive and folksy (wonder how far Southport is from Mayberry).

Earlier I mentioned similarities to last year’s THE LUCKY ONE? Well if this weren’t the same author, I’d think that a plagiarism suit could be in the works. Both feature a stranger with a mysterious past arriving in a picture perfect small town ( Zac Efron in ONE, Hough here). There’s an achingly adorable moppet in both so there can be a big manipulative child endangerment scene to goose up the ending (really they had to go there). We’ve got older, funny no-nonsense elders encouraging the lovebirds (West here and Momma Blythe Danner in ONE). The most blatant example of the “plot sharing” may be the villains. An obnoxious violent bully in ONE and a violent, boozing thug in here. Oh and THEY”RE BOTH COPS!!! What’s up with that, Mr. Sparks? I’m probably making too much about a flick that could have easily been a Lifetime original basic cable movie (pure heroine, good new man, evil man from past). Oh, and there’s a last scene plot “twist” that would make M. Night. Shyamalan cringe. Sure the book’s fans will get their money’s worth, but what’s truly disparaging for film lovers is the  anme of the director charged with bringing this turgid mess to the screen: Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish film maker who gained fame first with MY LIFE AS A DOG. Over the years he’s given us quirky compelling dramas like WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (with Leonardo DiCaprio’s first great film role), THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, and CHOCOLAT. Let’s hope he can find better material to bring to the screen and will not have to go slumming with Sparks’s sentimental by-the-numbers forgettable junk again.

1/2 Star Out of 5

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Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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