Hey Lovers, ‘Safe Haven’ is a Decent Date Movie

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Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – It’s Valentine’s Day, and along with the impossible to get dinner reservations, the decision of which movie to see has probably spoiled this holiday as much as Walgreen roses. But the romantic drama ‘Safe Haven’ is a well performed, well paced narrative that won’t make you gag, and that includes you wishing-to-see-Die-Hard dudes.

Credit for this probably goes to director Lasse Hallström (“Chocolat,” “Casanova”) who knows a thing about romantic canoodling, and the earnest cast that includes Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel. Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook”), the story itself has an air of well established mystery, which adds some depth to the characters that make them more interesting. Hallstrom also adds some touches that are unexpected, with a nod toward Hitchcock. Also Hough and Duhamel’s characters are seeking some sort of redemption, which makes a love story more motivated and savory. Debate the odd ending all you want, but this Valentine’s Day movie makes its case.

The film opens with a woman (Julianne Hough) running through a Boston neighborhood, obviously on the lam. We follow her through the escape, with a cop named Tierney (David Lyons) hot on her trail. She cleverly boards a bus going south, and manages to slip away. At a rest stop in a North Carolina oceanfront town, she finds some peace, and decides to stay there under the name Katie. She takes up residence in a woodsy cabin, with only Jo (Cobie Smulders from “How I Met Your Mother”) as a remote neighbor.

Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel
On the Beach: Katie (Julianne Hough) and Alex (Josh Duhamel) in ‘Safe Haven’
Photo credit: Relativity Media

A notably attractive woman coming into a small town gives rise to some attention, and the local shopkeeper named Alex (Josh Duhamel) takes a interest in the new arrival. This surprises those around him, because he hasn’t been the same since losing his wife to cancer two years earlier. He cares for his kids Josh (Noah Lomax) – who hasn’t gotten over his mother’s death – and Lexie (Mimi Kirkland), who welcomes his father’s new love interest. The Boston cop keeps up his obsession to find Katie, and slowly begins to crack the case. The race is on between finding a fugitive and finding romance.

Director Lasse Hallström emphasizes the mystery in his composition, and the film has a tense, thriller-like feel. He puts in some nice touches and uses the seaside setting to full advantage, including a Fourth of July parade that has includes a nice Hitchcock homage, with the obsessed cop maniacally searching through the most American of pageantries. He uses wide opens spaces in his shots, and allows the characters to use those spaces between themselves and among themselves – it creates a nice sense of purpose.

The performers are relaxed, and the script (adapted by Leslie Bohem) allows them to slip into a comfort zone with the circumstance. The Alex character is conflicted in approaching a new relationship, and his son is tentative because he misses his mother. This is brought to light without sentiment, and works. Hough, in her first dramatic role, adds to the tension by having a jumpy nervousness while on the run, especially good when she makes her escape. She relaxes and becomes vulnerable when she takes up with Alex, which leads naturally to the final confrontation with her obsessed cop. There is a destiny to the relationship that flows through the story, which makes the romance more tolerable.

The story also develops tension, which is the hallmark of drama. There are bumps in the night, symbolic house fires and a drunk guy who won’t quit. David Lyons portrays the drunk, obsessed cop and gives it a flair over and above the norm, especially when badgering Katie’s old lady neighbor for information (the casting of the old lady is positively David Lynch-ian). When the fireworks go off on the Fourth of July, it creates a backdrop of chaos. Hallström simply makes the right choices in conveying what could have been maddening.

Mimi Kirkland, Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel
Family Ties: Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) with Alex and Katie in ‘Safe Haven’
Photo credit: Relativity Media

The source novel is from Nicholas Sparks, and there is a tendency for him to throw too much into the story stew. There is a questionable ending that probably wasn’t necessary, but it will enliven conversation at the post-film debate over drinks. It was harmless but silly, adding an element that is a treacly wish fulfillment, but didn’t fit with the approach that Hallström had taken. You can’t have everything, and where would you put it in a romantic drama?

Time to put the lint brush over the outfit, check those reservations – dammit, near the kitchen again – and do one of those online ticket thingies. Resist the Die Hard temptation, and click the mouse for the “safest haven” possible, a Valentine’s Day movie that actually doesn’t stink.

“Safe Haven” opens everywhere on February 14th. Featuring Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders, Mimi Kirkland, Noah Lomax and David Lyons. Screenplay adapted by Leslie Bohem, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2013 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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