If you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching a Lifetime movie on television (I plead guilty.), you know that most of them follow pretty much the same predictably annoying formula. In the early going, they are interesting enough to suck you in, and often they offer enough suspense (usually a woman in some kind of trouble) to keep you interested, but then they move into a lamely unsatisfying denouement that’s jammed into the last five minutes.
“Safe Haven,” the new film based upon the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name, could very well have been made for Lifetime because it follows the formula precisely. At first I really became caught up in it, but toward the middle I was a bit impatient waiting for the inevitable to occur, and then when I discovered the big “surprise” at the end, I wanted to throw myself into the woods from my back deck for wasting my time.
As “Safe Haven” opens in Boston, we find a young woman named Erin Tierney (Julianne Hough) desperately enlisting the help of one of her neighbors, Mrs. Feldman (Irene Ziegler), in successfully escaping from her husband, police officer Kevin Tierney (David Lyons). David is an alcoholic with a propensity for violence when he gets loaded, and Erin has finally had enough of him.
After dying and cutting her hair, Erin narrowly manages, in the middle of a rainstorm, to board a bus bound for Atlanta as David frantically searches for her. One of the stops en route to Atlanta is the picturesque seaside town of Southport, N.C., and Erin finds herself so drawn to it that she lets the bus leave without her, changes her name to Katie, and obtains a job in the local restaurant. She even finds a little cabin in the woods that she fixes up, and she begins a new life; meanwhile back in Boston Frank uses police resources in attempting to determine Erin’s/Katie’s whereabouts.
Now one of Southport’s more prominent citizens is Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), who owns and operates the little general store in the town. After the untimely death of Alex’s wife to cancer, he was left with the task of raising their two young children, Josh (Noah Lomax) and Lexie (Mimi Kirkland). Of course it doesn’t take a psychic to predict that the first time Katie walks into his store, Alex’s testosterone level goes off the chart, and then the inevitable romance between two lonely souls develops. And always lurking in the background is one very pissed off Boston detective who refuses to quit looking for his missing wife.
As Katie continues to settle into her new surroundings and her relationship with Alex progresses, she also finds a new friend in Southport. Her name is Jo (Cobie Smulders), and she ultimately becomes Katie’s confidante and learns about Kevin, who is getting ever closer to finding out where Katie is living.
Will Kevin finally locate Katie? If he does, will he harm her? Can Alex and Katie live happily ever after? Or will he learn the truth about Katie’s past and reject her? Do you want to know the answers to these probing questions? If so, you must see the movie or wait for it to come out on DVD because I’m not going to reveal anything else about it.
“Safe Haven” is just one more in the line of Sparks’ novels that have made their way to the big screen. Unfortunately it’s billed as a romantic thriller, and although it does have its share of romance, it is far from a satisfying thriller. We learn about Katie’s tumultuous relationship with Kevin through several shallow flashbacks, but they really aren’t developed fully enough to give us an accurate picture of how abusive he actually is.
The film also fails to build sufficient suspense during Kevin’s search for Katie, and part of the problem here is that Lyons doesn’t manage to create a wacko believable enough to elicit our fear and loathing. In fact, as far as psychos go, he is pathetically wimpy, and a thriller without a viable villain is tantamount to a ventriloquist with moving lips or a handsome cowboy astride a flea-bitten nag. Thus as a bona fide chiller, the film flops completely.
As a romance, however, “Haven” does have the chemistry between Hough and Duhamel to recommend it. Both of them are convincing in portraying the hesitant diffidence their respective characters display in the anticipation of entering into a serious relationship. Sparks spoke about this chemistry in the film’s production notes and explained why this movie is a bit of a departure the other film adaptations of his books.
“It’s something a little unexpected. There are a lot of elements in the film that are new as far as a Nicholas Sparks film goes. Of course, fans will still get the relatable characters and the strong love story that they come to my work looking for. There’s a lot of chemistry between the main characters and the relationship evolves in a very natural way. But there are a couple of other threads that are different. It feels like Nicholas Sparks, until it suddenly doesn’t.”
Also in the production notes, Hough explained how she related to her character and offered an interesting analysis of Katie.
“I’ve been in situations where I haven’t been able to be myself, and the light that’s inside of each of us has become dark. Katie is not who she wants to be and not who she knows she can be. She has to change her situation. That idea of redemption is so appealing. She allowed herself to be sucked into a life she never expected. All she wants is not to be hurt again. Little by little she gets drawn into the town and feels as if she really truly belongs there. And little by little her strength begins to take form.”
Although “Safe Haven” shows promise as a romance, it totally bombs as a suspense movie. But the preposterous “twist” at the ending completely destroys any kind of credibility and reduces it to the lowest possible form of fantastical schmaltz. Therefore, give the film a final score of a cheesy four and file it under a safe haven for a potential Lifetime revival.