There are few less predictable movies being made than Nicholas Sparks adaptations. From Message in a Bottle over A Walk to Remember and The Notebook all the way to last year’s The Lucky One, the movies based on his source material have always adhered to the same well-established rules. Given the success of the films, it’s no surprise that little effort is made to change the formula. Afterall, why fix what ain’t broken? It is a perfectly laid-out blueprint for success too. Two good-looking, vulnerable leads find each other under unlikely circumstances. They fall for each other (cue glowing sunsets, romantic pop songs, tender PG-love-scenes), later face unexpected obstacles in their relationship, but love usually prevails. At the end someone dies (though not always the main character). This is precisely the formula that Safe Haven, the 8th adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel follows for 105 minutes, until an 11th hour left-field twist pulls the rug under the viewers’ feet – but not in a good way.
Safe Haven opens in Boston, with a young scared woman, running barefoot in the rain, blood on her hands. Erin (Julianne Hough) is our main character. She finds shelter at an old woman’s place and soon thereafter re-emerges with her hair dyed blonde and cut shorter. At the bus station she takes the next best Greyhound as a cop (David Lyons) frantically searches for her at the very same bus station. However, she is able to leave undetected and eventually arrives in Southport, North Carolina – the state that is the setting of most Sparks adaptations. That’s not all too surprising given that the aforementioned sunsets look even prettier over water. It is Southport, where Erin finds her peace. Taking on the name Katie, she rents a small cabin out in the woods, far away from the rest of the town, takes on a job as a waitress at the local diner and befriends Jo (Cobie Smulders), another lonely woman with a mysterious past. It’s close to that diner, at a small grocery store, where she meets Alex (Josh Duhamel), a good-looking, upstanding widower with two little kids, whose wife died of cancer a few years ago. He’s still struggling with the loss, which put a strain on his relationship with his son Josh (Noah Lomax). Although very cautious at first, Katie/Erin eventually (and with some advice from Jo) finds herself attracted to the sensible man (I know, what a twist) and the sparks fly. However, the past soon catches up to Katie as Tierney, the cop who was looking for her, is on her trail.
As you may have noticed by now, there is very little that separates this film from the rest of Sparks’ work. Soulful looks, swooning gazes, romantic scenes in the rain, sunsets – all are present. It also seems that a rowboat scene is now obligatory in any Nicholas Sparks adaptation as it clearly represents the pinnacle of romanticism. This all isn’t new territory for the director Lasse Hallström, who’s cashing in his paycheck here. Hallström has already given the audiences Dear John, another Sparks adaptation (this time with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried in the leading roles), a film mostly saved by Richard Jenkins’ dignified performance that was well above the rest of the film. This is a detail present in most Sparks’ adaptations that is sorely lacking in Safe Haven – a veteran actor/actress who usually delivers the film’s best turn (Paul Newman in Message in a Bottle, Jenkins in Dear John, Blythe Danner in The Lucky One). Instead, the focus is squarely on the main couple and Tierney’s desperate search for Katie. Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough don’t share nearly as much chemistry as the film and its score would like us to believe, but at least the 16 year gap in age between the two never strikes the viewer as odd. On the other hand, David Lyons, in the role of the couple’s main foe, is given a little bit more material to work with than your usual Sparks “villain”, but that isn’t saying much. His character is the one that makes the most lasting impression, though. At last there is Cobie Smulders who for most of the film feels like her character could be cut from the movie and no one would ever notice, until the ending tries to justify her presence.
It is clear that the movie tries to go two ways: maintaining everything that the previous Sparks adaptations had to become hits, while giving the thing a couple of twists. The first concerns the reason why Katie is on the run and why the cop is looking for her. Anyone who hasn’t guessed that after seeing the trailer or at latest after five minutes into the film, probably hasn’t seen a total of ten movies in his/her life. Admittedly, the second twist is much harder to guess, but in this case, it is not much of a compliment. After having played as an entirely generic, overlong, yet surprising not-so-boring Sparks for almost the entire film, the film’s final minutes contain a revelation that is not just shamelessly ripped off from another film (you’ll know which, once you see it, I promise), but also bears so little actual significance and comes so randomly, that you’ll find yourself in total disbelief, while the end credits are already rolling. This is up there with Hide and Seek and Perfect Stranger for the most ridiculous twists put on screen in the past ten years, except that it actually comes in the genre that isn’t exactly known for twists (rather the opposite) and feels totally out of place here.
Looking at Hough’s and Duhamel’s previous efforts, I wouldn’t say that they are above this, but Lasse Hallström certainly is. As feather-light and unremarkable as last year’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seemed, it was still miles better than Safe Haven, not to mention Hallström’s top works such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules and even his recent Hachi: A Dog’s Tale which sadly received no theatrical release in North America. But I guess, whenever Hallström needs a financial hit, he can always go back to adapting yet another Nicholas Sparks novel.