Starring: Josh Duhamel, Julianne Hough
Directed by: Lasse Hallström
Running time: 115 minutes
Parental guidance: PG, violence, sexual situations
Rating: 2 1/2 (Out of 5)
On the coast of North Carolina, there is a place called Nicholas Sparks Land. It is an alluring place, at once familiar - at least to the 80 million people who have purchased his books or the millions more who have seen one of the eight movies made from them - and exotic.
It is a picturesquely ramshackle world of workaday marinas, blue-collar beaches and comfortable wooden restaurants, all run by warm-hearted, although sometimes cranky, old-timers. A handsome young man lives there as well, a noble man who has had to deal with death: a war veteran or a widower mourning the loss of a beautiful wife ("Cancer," explains someone in Safe Haven, the latest visit to Nicholas Sparks Land. "A few years ago. It nearly tore Alex in half.") He's getting by, even though he must pause occasionally to gaze into the middle distance, as if remembering perfection.
Perhaps for this reason, Nicholas Sparks Land also attracts beautiful visitors, pretty women who are on the run from a dark past, or a secret that is pursuing them. They're strangers in town, but they fit right in, due to their perky natures. In time they will meet the noble widower, frequently to the music of an acoustic guitar, and together they will face the past. Nicholas Sparks Land is a reassuring place, and it's likely that Nicholas Sparks himself is a very wealthy man.
Coming out just in time for Valentine's Day, Safe Haven is another telling of this romantic fable, although with a twist. This time there's also a thriller that includes a police hunt and a woman wanted for attempted murder. It adds a note of suspense that is usually missing, at least to those who figured out early that Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling were meant for one another (in The Notebook), or Kevin Costner should let Robin Wright into his heart (in Message in a Bottle), or all the other pairings that we have previously enjoyed in this soulful universe.
Alex, the widower in Safe Haven, is played by Josh Duhamel, the Transformers hunk recast in the togs of grief - T-shirts, khakis, no-fuss haircut - and put in charge of the local general store, which he runs with his young children. Against all odds, the kids (actors Noah Lomax and especially Mimi Kirkland) are believable and natural, a reminder that the director Lasse Hallström had a way with children (My Life as a Dog) before his slow transformation into a Hollywood journeyman. Hallström has been in Nicholas Sparks Land before, of course, back when Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried strained to be together in Dear John.
Alex has been wounded by his loss, although it doesn't seem to have affected his hotness quotient any. He's ripe for someone like Katie (Julianne Hough, who looks like what might happen if you mixed Ashley Judd and Meg Ryan in roughly the proportions of gin to vermouth in a dry martini). Katie is the wild card in Safe Haven: we meet her running frantically out of a house in Boston, blood on her hands and a knife on the floor. She skedad-dles to a bus and takes off to the first available spot (next stop: Nicholas Sparks Land!), pursued by a policeman (played by David Lyons) whose investigation brings him closer and closer to finding her.
We are torn between hoping for this fugitive to escape, just like in Les Miserables, and dying to know who was stabbed and why. Meanwhile, the low-key charms of the Carolina coast invite us to enjoy the scenery: Katie painting her kitchen floor yellow, Alex giving her a bicycle, the moment when they get caught in the rain and they have one of those impromptu moments of fun that are all the more romantic for being extemporaneous and involving the wearing of baseball caps.
And there's more as well, although you wouldn't believe it if I told you: a twist on top of the surprise that ties together the various dramas of Safe Haven. It heralds a note of spirituality that would be about the darnedest thing ever if it didn't feel borrowed from another movie that knocked us sideways with a similar shocker. There's always something new in Nicholas Sparks Land, even when there isn't.
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