Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Happy Valentine's Day! To celebrate the world's apparently long-term relationship with Nicholas Sparks, he got us all something. It's called Safe Haven; it's based on one, or possibly all, of his approximately 300 novels, and it contains all the stuff Nicholas Sparks finds unbelievably romantic. For example: children! When Katie (Julianne Hough) rolls into a small North Carolina town, on the run from what looks in the movie's opening moments like a crime scene, it might seem like she'd attract the attention of Alex (Josh Duhamel) because she wears shorts almost all the time, or because there may be as few as 15 people total who live in said town. But what really catches Alex's eye is the way Katie talks to his little daughter Lexi (Mimi Kirkland). Small children, as we all know, are excellent at sensing danger and, as such, have excellent taste in women. Similarly, Katie lets her guard down around Alex, because no one who has two children could be a monster.
Even better, Alex is a widower. Sparks students know that if there's anything more romantic than the postcard bliss of true love (with children), it's when one of the lovers dies, and if there's anything more romantic than a dead lover, it's a new lover coming in and teaching the widow or widower (but let's be real: usually a widower) how to love again. If you ever feel unsatisfied by the tear-flow levels during one of Sparks's happier endings (only some of them end with a dead lover!), just think of how romantic it will be when one of the partners dies, and the true love/death/bittersweet new love process begins anew.
Speaking of tears: water also ranges from somewhat to extremely romantic, based on whether it's off the coast of North Carolina (somewhat) or raining down from the sky (extremely!), ruining-but-actually-sexing-up a canoeing trip (romantic overload!). And how could I leave out letters? If you enjoyed the previous Lasse Hallstrom-directed adaptation of a Sparks novel, Dear John, but find yourself worrying that this one will have rain and North Carolina and one tasteful sex scene but not letters, set your mind at ease: there are letters, and they're from a dead person, which is probably the most romantic kind of letter possible.
By this point, a Sparks movie is a low-level puzzle of how these elements of pure romance will fit together. On this level, Safe Haven succeeds: its use of misdirection isn't exactly sophisticated, but for at least the first hour, my mind raced with combinations and recombinations of moves from the Sparks playbook. For such a committed romantic, he has, at best, a secondary interest in actual human relationships. His couples are always surrounded by precocious children and wise older people making their approval clear (it takes a village to encourage a chaste coupling), which means that non-child, non-elderly characters like the handheld-shot cop on Katie's trail (David Lyons) and the one friend she makes in town (Cobie Smulders) must serve some higher purpose.
Working from this strict blueprint, it's hard to see what would bring even a journeyman like Hallstrom back for a second go-round. Maybe it's like a Carolina vacation; directors of these movies seem increasingly irrelevant as Sparks gets deeper into the movie industry. He didn't just write the original novel of Safe Haven; he produced the movie, too, a first in his career, which coincides with perhaps the most ludicrous of the Sparks Notes I've seen so far—is it possible that the likes of Dear John and The Last Song were actually holding back? Regardless, the howler of a twist that closes Safe Haven is also the logical extension of the author's quasi-spiritual, creepily wholesome belief system. Prefabricated romance is his religion.
Opens February 14