At least the kids are in fine form in 'Safe Haven'

05:00 AM, Feb 13, 2013

Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough star in the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, the sappy and predictable 'Safe Haven.' James Bridges, Relativity Media/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Safe Haven may not be the most dangerous place to spend Valentine’s Day — but it’s hardly a worthwhile romantic choice.

This emotionally manipulative tale (** out of four, rated PG-13; opening Thursday nationwide) centers on Katie (Julianna Hough), a mysterious woman who abruptly leaves her Boston home and ends up in a quiet seaside village in North Carolina. We learn, mostly through flashbacks, that something traumatic happened to her, prompting her to get on a bus and flee. Constantly looking over her shoulder, she avoids human connection.

But she can’t quite resist the charms of handsome store owner Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower with two adorable children.

It seems to take forever, but she ultimately falls for Alex and makes a powerful connection with his children. Still, she can’t outrun her past.

Duhamel has a charming affability and a self-deprecating sense of humor, first visible in 2004’s Win a Date With Tad Hamilton. But he’s not given much opportunity here. Dogged by substandard dialogue and lack of chemistry with Hough, he comes off as sweetly earnest eye candy.

The film hinges on Katie, and Hough’s performance is a weak link. She is meant to be harboring a dark secret, but no one could seem less tortured. A professional dancer, her acting credits include roles in Footloose, Burlesque and Rock of Ages, but Hough doesn’t have the requisite dramatic skills to make her character believable or worth caring about. She goes around with a blank expression, then suddenly lets loose with an orthodontist’s dream of a smile, as if she just remembered to have a personality. But beaming adorably does not a personality make.

Almost as bad is David Lyons, who plays Kevin, a driven policeman who grows more maniacal as the film unspools. He’s a villain with a capital V, and goes around drinking and driving and dishonoring a small-town Fourth of July parade. If he had a mustache, he’d surely twirl it.

The two actors with the most vitality and genuine appeal are young Mimi Kirkland and Noah Lomax, who play Alex’s children, Lexi and Josh..

A pair of laughably ludicrous plot twists loom. But don’t be fooled: This film, adapted from the novel by Nicholas Sparks, is no thriller. Its focus remains squarely on sappy romance. It’s set, as nearly all Sparks’ tales are, in a picturesque Southern town marked by good-hearted folks, lovely homes and a gorgeous coastline. The love scenes are gauzily romantic and staunchly PG. Dialogue is heavy on sentimentality. The story hits many familiar notes — a handsome widower who hasn’t quite gotten over his wife’s death, a need to start over fresh in a quaintly beautiful setting.

This is director Lasse Hallstrom’s second Sparks adaptation (after Dear John in 2010), and it’s hard to imagine why someone who made such wonderful films as My Life as a Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape would bother with this formulaic, schmaltzy fare. Perhaps he just wanted to work in a gorgeous locale? The picture-postcard location of Southport, N.C., is the film’s strong suit.

Alex’s description of the scenic town also applies to the movie: “Nothing very exciting happens here, but it sure is beautiful.”

Safe Haven clip: Empty Canvas