The good ship cinema pulls in once again to the Nicholas Sparks Port of Abject Sentimentality – hey, it must be Valentine’s Day. Since this is the eighth novel by the esteemed Sparks to make such a journey, not to mention the second time that director Lasse Hallstrom has served as captain, and since authoritative sources assure me that the previous expeditions “have amassed a cumulative worldwide gross of nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars,” it’s hard to argue with the title here – Safe Haven, indeed. This is all about safety in the Hollywood workplace. Why make a movie when making a Hallmark-card-with-dialogue is so much less risky?
With dialogue and, of course, with pretty faces too. Preferably, the fresh-scrubbed kind that, in this case, belong to Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel. She’s Katie, the damsel in opening-scene distress, whom we first see under a hoodie, escaping on a bus, at night, in the rain. In short: Exit, pursued by an abusive bear of a husband.
Entrance, the following morning in tiny Southport on the picturesque coast of North Carolina. No abusive bears there. Just fresh-scrubbed Josh as Alex the fresh-scrubbed widower, with his two pretty kids and his pretty general store and a late wife so pretty that she gets resurrected for occasional guest appearances. At first, Katie is guarded, and he’s charming. Then he’s more charming, and Katie is less guarded. So cue up Pastel Montage No. 1 with Sappy Soundtrack Accompaniment.
Ensconced in her fixer-upper cabin itself ensconced in a sylvan glade, Katie paints the floors a sunshine yellow, which, by happy coincidence, is precisely the hue of most everything that follows. Like the family trip to the beach, where Katie and Alex and the kiddies gambol in the sun and frolic in the waves until the moment arrives for Pastel Montage No. 2 with … oh, need I go on?
Okay, I’ll go on, much like that abusive hubby who, courtesy of some deft tacking by Captain Hallstrom, can be intermittently glimpsed closing in on Katie’s safe haven – he and his black hat threatening to stain all the bright yellow. But not before romance blooms. Actually, since this particular Hallmark-card-with-dialogue clocks in at 115 essentially plotless minutes, romance is obliged to take its own sweet time blooming.
That’s why Katie has to catch a fish, which she offers to an appreciative Alex. Then he has to say, “Do you want to go canoeing with me,” and they paddle. And then, post-paddle, they dance, and post-dance, they almost kiss, and post kiss-manqué, they really smooch – albeit behind a tree. Later, I think they go beyond kissing but that’s just a guess because Captain Hallstrom gets very tricky at this delicate point, trading in the yellow for discreet shadows that hide the naughty bits and make it hard to see what the hell’s going on. Your trusty reporter can only confirm the presence of a bed, of two seemingly pretty shapes upon it, and the consequent arrival of Pastel Montage No. 3. You figure it out.
Meanwhile, the black hat is fast approaching, as is the Fourth of July, which means literal fireworks followed by a literal fire – perhaps not surprising from a guy named Sparks. There’s also a letter. There’s always a letter stuffed into these Hallmark cards. This one comes at the end, along with a complementary hankie and a red candy heart. Such a nice gesture. Which, I suppose, makes Safe Haven the perfect Valentine’s date – instead of dinner and a movie, dinner and a gesture.