*1/2 (out of four)
You should know: “Safe Haven” contains two big twists that are also big mistakes, turning an already watered-down romance into frustrating, flavorless slush.
As Katie and Alex, Julianne Hough (who neither sings nor dances) and Josh Duhamel are neither the problem nor the solution. He works in a coastal North Carolina market.
In a prologue shot like a thriller, she escapes a bloody incident in Boston, evades the cops and hops on a bus, eventually landing in Alex’s small town. After one whole day of unemployment, Katie starts working at Ivan’s Fish Shack and buys an isolated house in the woods, clearly believing the best way to protect herself is in a home that’s location and lack of outside lighting resembles the doomed cabin in “Mama.”
It should be no surprise for anyone familiar with the saints/sinners characterizations of Nicholas Sparks stories (“The Notebook,” “The Lucky One”) that both characters are running from major pain, but are up for a relationship when a perfect, gorgeous specimen comes along.
Alex is a widower whose son, Josh, isn’t sure about Katie; Alex’s daughter, Lexie, loves her from the start. As the couple—who look like Barbie’s cute little sister and Johnny Knoxville’s sensitive, star quarterback brother—grows cozier, a manic Boston cop (David Lyons) ruthlessly searches for Katie as if he has only one case, but no real idea how to handle it.
As Katie’s neighbor Jo, Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) pops up occasionally for bland conversations featuring statements like, “Katie, the great thing is life is full of second chances.” Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who gathered nice work from Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried in the superior “Dear John,” “Safe Haven” makes good use of Hough’s shorts and Duhamel’s V-neck T-shirts, but never pushes their relationship outside formula. However, anyone who doesn’t melt a little when Alex gazes at letters that his late wife wrote for their kids has a heart of stone—stone, I say.
Left alone as a story of two wounded hearts becoming one, “Safe Haven” could comfort like an old pillow. Mucked up by cliché and manipulation, the frequently contrived, Lifetime-esque film is just a smelly rag with holes.
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