Playing it safe, but not very well

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Safe Haven
Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough star in "Safe Haven." (James Bridges/Relativity Media)

The movies adapted from Nicholas Sparks’s novels have rarely been blockbusters. But films like The Lucky One, The Last Song, Dear John, A Walk to Remember and The Notebook have been successful, thanks in part to careful casting and controlled budgets.

But neither of those elements guarantees that a movie will be good. And Safe Haven is definitely not. Sure, it promises gentle romance, and that was an attraction to the predominantly female audience at a recent preview screening. It will probably be even more the case when the movie premieres today, as dutiful swains accompany their valentines to the theater to see this.

But director Lasse Hallstrom (who also helmed the Sparks-based Dear John cannot distinguish between a deliberate pace and a painfully slow one. Safe Haven drags badly. Then the draggy parts give the audience too much time to collect the numerous questionable acts in the plot and characters.

Making this even more difficult to bear are the two leads, Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel. Hough, best known for her work on Dancing With the Stars, has big-screen dreams that have so far led to the underwhelming efforts in the Footloose reboot and Rock of Ages; her blandness even in moments of high drama is remarkable. But she is more than matched by the dull Duhamel, known for TV’s Las Vegas and marriage to singer Fergie, but not much of a movie attraction when the word Transformers isn’t in the film’s title.

The movie stars Hough as a woman who, early in the film, sets out on the run by bus from a bloody scene — and the police. Her bus stops in a small North Carolina town that looks quiet and safe. She finds an isolated but comfy little house, gets a job as a waitress and begins to develop a relationship with a local widower (Duhamel). Both are cautious — she, after all, is a fugitive, and he is still hurting from his wife’s death — but there’s an attraction that neither can finally resist.

Only, of course, there’s that business in Hough’s past, and a police detective who is determined to track her down. No amount of Hough-Duhamel romps on the beach and canoe trips is going to make this haven safe forever.

So we trudge to the climactic events, including some ludicrous scenes, and then an emotionally manipulative twist (which some audience members will have anticipated) designed to pull some tears out of spectators who have been unmoved by everything up to that point.

As many things as I found wrong with Safe Haven, for the most part I did not hate it. In fact, I understood that it is a shiny fantasy — that questions of money and jobs are easily resolved, and fights leave few bruises, and hair always looks good. And I saw it mainly to please my darling bride, who loves a good romantic tale and was drawn by the ads. But Safe Haven didn’t make enough of a dramatic effort to keep me from being bored. And my wife was not enthralled either; she was whispering to me at one point about how slowly it moved.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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