As Safe Haven opens, Katie (Julianne Hough) is on the run. She hops on a bus, narrowly avoiding the police, and rides through Atlanta and into North Carolina, where the tiny coastal town of Southport becomes her hideout. She gets a job in a restaurant, buys a house far away from the general population, and initially rejects the awkward advances of local grocery owner Alex (Josh Duhamel), who introduces services his shop doesn't normally provide because they're the things Katie is asking for. As days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months, Katie settles into a comfort level that allows her to let Alex in, and she gets close to him and his two kids, Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and Josh (Noah Lomax). Even so, in the back of her mind, she knows that her troubled past could catch up with her at any minute.
Look, there's no sense in avoiding it: I am not the target audience for this, the latest in an increasingly long line of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Hollywood first came knocking in the early 2000s, when they made the teen weepie A Walk to Remember, and big-screen versions of Sparks' work has become so popular, Safe Haven lists "Nicholas Sparks Productions" in the opening credits. At the same time, while a certain level of emotional manipulation is to be expected with a film like this, Safe Haven goes about its business in such a lazy, perfunctory way, perking up only for a last-minute reveal that is so strange and so goofy it's hard to believe it isn't actually intended to be funny.
For one, although both are quite likable and conventionally attractive, there's really not much romantic chemistry between Hough and Duhamel. Katie laughs a whole bunch, and Alex gives a "big lovable doofus" smile back each time, but Sparks and director Lasse HallstrÃ¶m are completely uninterested in injecting even the slightest spark or deviance from formula. It's amazing that anybody read the scene where Katie and Alex are comically caught in a rainstorm and end up dancing by themselves in an empty storefront and didn't just fall asleep in the middle of it. Other moments, such as Alex and Katie's hands creeping toward each other in the sand, feel like a blatant concession in the depiction of an adult romance for an audience of 16 and 17-year-olds. The only thing worth appreciating in these scenes is the fact that HallstrÃ¶m left in a moment where Duhamel makes what basically looks like the shape of a vagina in the sand, and then sticks his hand through it, allowing the pieces to slip through his fingers. Since this happens during a fumbled attempt to get Katie to open up to him, I can only assume the visual symbolism is super intentional.
So, maybe Sparks and HallstrÃ¶m are trying to do something new. Safe Haven is half-thriller, but that half isn't any more creative or invested. The film is built around Katie's mysterious past, and the sweaty cop, Tierney (David Lyons), who doggedly tracks her. Although some of this section's plot holes are covered by a mid-movie reveal, the writing of the thriller material is especially lazy. The fact that the Atlanta line stops "at the southern hub" of the bus lines is presented as important, because apparently people don't get off buses and go elsewhere when trying to hide. Although Lyons deserves credit for making the character into a real menace, HallstrÃ¶m doesn't even try to wring much drama out of Katie's story short of presenting it. The big reveal about her character feels cheap, reducing the elements involved to plot devices in a glossy Hollywood romance instead of evoking any real emotions, which is maybe faintly insulting. To add insult to injury, the traditional thriller elements merely exist as a new road to the usual romance speed-bumps, like an annoying scene where the characters briefly stop talking to each other so that they can make up two scenes later.
All of this is so perfunctory and by-the-numbers that it only sweetens the absolute lunacy of Sparks and HallstrÃ¶m's big reveal. Without giving away too much, there is a third thread, involving Katie and a character named Jo, played by Cobie Smulders. Despite Katie's shut-off "survival mode" atttiude in the first hour, she has no trouble making friends with Jo. Sparks and HallstrÃ¶m seem to forget about Jo from time to time, arbitrarily jumping to a conversation between the two women whenever Katie needs to be talking to someone, and Jo is a perfect sounding board, providing advice and wisdom about her situation and her relationship whenever necessary. At one point, she even shows up in a dream with plot-relevant information, which is kind of hilarious all on its own. Word online suggests the nature of their relationship is more obvious in Sparks' book, but the movie awkwardly avoids addressing it until the very end (which renders some dialogue snippets that appear to hint at it completely baffling). It's a jaw-dropping, left-field bit of dramatic nonsense to rival the collective history of twist endings, and yet Katie only appears to consider it for about thirty seconds. Welcome to the world of Nicholas Sparks.
20th Century Fox offers Safe Haven with the traditional Nicholas Sparks poster art intact, described by a Tumblr user as "White People Almost Kissing." The Blu-Ray and DVD are housed in a standard eco-friendly Blu-Ray case, with a sheet containing a code for the digital copy, and the whole package slides into a cardboard slipcover with nearly identical artwork.
The Video and Audio
Nothing out of the ordinary to report here. This 2.40:1 1080p AVC, DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio presentation is top-notch, delivering all the clarity and detail a viewer will expect out of a 2013 Blu-Ray of a 2013 film. Although some of the aesthetic choices by HallstrÃ¶m and cinematographer Terry Stacey have a certain modern laziness to them (mainly in terms of colors, especially in flashback sequences), this disc renders them all accurately, without any banding, artifacting, or crush. The film's bright, upbeat score is reproduced in vibrant detail, and the ambience of the movie's idyllic setting is rich and enveloping across the rear channels. Although much of the movie is dialogue, a few thriller-style sections (like the movie's opening scenes) bring up some pulse-pounding low-end, and late-movie fireworks also provide some oomph to allow the track to show off. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
A cursory selection of extras are included. First up, a short reel of deleted and extended scenes (5:19, HD) reveal elaborate lost sequences such as 30 seconds of Hough running through an alley, and Duhamel telling Kirkland that they'll get a dog. This segues into an alternate ending (3:37, HD), which deviates from the theatrical ending by including some shots of Smulders talking directly to the camera.
Three featurettes are next. "Igniting the Romance in Safe Haven" (9:15, HD) is a prototypical EPK with the cast and crew nodding about how lovely it is to work together, with the added twist that many of these crew members worked on a previous Sparks adaptation, Dear John. Sparks is also the host of a very brief "Set Tour" (2:18, HD), in which the cast offers some simple platitudes about working in the specific location where the author set the book. The best of these short clips, however, is "Josh Duhamel's Lessons in Crabbing" (3:05, HD), in which the actor tries desperately to snag a critter in a tiny cage he drops into the water between shots. It's not coincidental that this clip is both the most entertaining, and also the most genuine.
A trailer for The Heat and a promo explaining "The Blu-Ray Experience" (...? Shouldn't someone watching a Blu-Ray already know what that experience is?) play before the main menu, and are accessible in the Special Features as "Sneak Peek." An original theatrical trailer for Safe Haven is also included.
Skip it. Despite an unintentionally hilarious ending that must be seen to be believed, that's not enough to warrant even a rental recommendation of this lifeless romance. Safe Haven's beautiful stars can't muster an ounce of passion or energy between them, engaging in a chaste romance that ought to put even the biggest Sparks fan to sleep. Although HallstrÃ¶m expertly deploys cute kids and shared thrills to get the audience to invest in the pair as a couple, there's no sexual tension to back it up, and that seems like a requirement in an adaptation of a romance novel.
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