There’s an ever-present threat with film reviews, particularly ones where a reviewer has had the opportunity to interview those involved with the film, of the soft pass. The “soft pass” is commonly associated with reviews where, despite a film’s obvious flaws, the critic is inclined to bestow upon it a marginally positive review. My reaction to Safe Haven, this latest in the long line of Nicholas Sparks romance porn adaptations, will be treading very deep into soft pass territory – though not for reasons you’d suspect.
Truth: I had a good time with Safe Haven, a film I typically wouldn’t buy a ticket for even as I acknowledge its existence holds merit for some. Directed by Lasse Hallström (Cider House Rules), Safe Haven is very much the film you’d expect from a literary mind that gave us A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, and Nights in Rodanthe – this is fluff; a movie tip-toeing around heavy drama as it skirts substance before giving filmgoers the happy ending they no doubt paid to see. It’s cliché, cutesy and even a little bit stupid, but then again so are puppies.
The guarded and mysterious Katie (Julianne Hough) arrives in seaport town, falls for the dreamy widower with two kids Alex (Josh Duhamel) until, oh no, her troubled past comes crashing back into her life. Now she must protect all she holds dear from the horrible life she left behind, and so forth. If you have to wonder whether Katie and Alex do it, congrats on Safe Haven being the first movie you’ve ever seen.
But there’s serious virtue in comfort food cinema, which Safe Haven most certainly is. There’s definitely an air of “white people with problems” working against the film, but on the whole Safe Haven provides the sort of warm fuzzies you’d expect from an effort of this ilk. It’s hardly a bad thing when a film accomplishes what it’s set out to accomplish.
Lasse Hallström continues to be a difficult director to pin down thematically, yet directing a Nicholas Sparks adaptation feels sort of perfect when you look back on his output. Stuff like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Salmon Fishing on the Yemen, films I enjoyed, both employ the same sort of emotional manipulation that tugs on heartstrings and wrings on tearducts. Mainstream feature filmmaking by design is often manipulative and, in truth, films unable to bring out the intended emotion are commonly viewed as failures.
It comes as no surprise that Duhamel and Hough are capable leads in a lovey-dovey effort such as this. Hough has improved steadily in her short career. She’ll always be a pretty face though here she’s still capable of holding her own and pulling off this role. Katie’s the character serious viewers (read, women) are going to identify with and, as such, Hough could sink the entire movie if she underperforms. Hallström directs her to her best work to date, by no means Oscar-worthy yet still exceedingly passable.
If romantic cheese were a dive bar, Josh Duhamel would be a regular by now. He carries the film like the battle-tested vet he is and I dare say I kind of like Alex by the end. His sixpack kind of kills the veneer but the Dude-hamel’s got “regular guy” down pat at this stage. I readily dismiss him in crap like Transformers (and will likely continue to), but coming out of Safe Haven I’m left wondering what the guy can pull off in a truly meaningful and well-written role. Time’s ticking on whether he’ll ever be a legit box office draw, but typecasting like this needs to be a concern at this point. He does fine work in Safe Haven, but that’s to be expected.
Cobie Smulders’ role will be the one leaving people talking. The film has a twist that treads new ground not at all, though in proper context might warrant a second viewing for some. Smulders the actress continues to be a non-presence, exuding the same vacant monotony that tanked her Avengers scenes. But her character offers an added layer and provides a moving conclusion that may ultimately make Safe Haven a regular go-to for the fairer sex and dudes brave enough to admit they can occasionally dig on flicks like this.
Safe Haven held my interest for 115 minutes, more than I can say for another film releasing this weekend that I had much higher expectations for. If you’re planning a date night, this is the film you see. If you just so happen to be anticipating the latest Sparks joint, know that this incredibly safe motion picture delivers as promised: a cute story and a ticket price.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars