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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough star in "Safe Haven."
Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough star in "Safe Haven."

"Safe Haven" offers no protection from Sparks' clichés

An astute audience member paying attention during the opening credits of "Safe Haven" will notice the film is the first product from Nicholas Sparks Productions. Yes, it seems Sparks has turned his brand of weepy predictable romantic drama into a certified business, and that’s exactly what "Safe Haven" feels like: business.

The Valentine’s Day drama plays like the result of a soulless Nicholas Sparks machine that simply plugged in the typical clichés and churned out a movie, personality be damned.

"Safe Haven" technically has two screenwriters, Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, adapting Sparks’ 2010 novel, but their names might as well have been replaced by the Nicholas Sparks Movie Generator 5000. Loading name … Katie, played by Julianne Hough, is a young woman escaping an abusive relationship with (insert corrupt ex-husband or boyfriend character, who could only be more cartoonishly villainous if he set a box of puppies on fire).

Her journey brings her to – you guessed it – a scenic, beachside boating town perfect for starting her life over and meaningful stares into the distance. She gets a job at the local diner and meets (loading handsome, big-hearted romantic lead with kids – one relentlessly mopey, the other adorable – and a dead wife…) Alex, played by Josh Duhamel.

After some awkward courting and humorously trite advice (one character – played by Cobie Smulders – says, "life is full of second chances" and then assumably gags on the hokey line’s saccharine gooeyness), the two fall in love. Plug in romantic rain storm. Unfortunately, Katie’s dark secret from her past comes to light just as she and Alex are beginning to truly trust one another. Oh, the tragically predictable irony.

They get in a fight that could be easily solved with an honest conversation, but the Nicholas Sparks Movie Generator, a machine unable to understand genuine human emotion and interactions, insists that it be wrapped up with a sequence in which Alex must race the clock to stop Katie from hopping on a boat and leaving town forever. Bonus cliché points for having Alex get caught in traffic and having to run to her in romantic desperation.

The love-struck couple falls back in love, just in time for her hilariously sinister ex – played by Cole Hauser lookalike David Lyons – to stumble drunkenly into town for the overheated dramatic climax. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to note that the Nicholas Sparks Movie Generator 5000 isn’t programmed to write un-romantic endings. 

So yeah, "Safe Haven" is pretty much every romance movie cliché and predictable plot point wrapped up in a two-hour timeframe. The surprise comes in how bland and lifeless the finished product is.

Director Lasse Hallstrom, continuing his slide from Oscar-nominated director to helming bland weepy romances (he also directed Sparks’ "Dear John"), seems to be just as bored with the material as the audience. Despite the pretty North Carolina locations, it’s sleepily filmed, clumsily paced and sloppily edited.

There’s no Gosling or McAdams to save the day, either. Hough and Duhamel may be attractive leads, but they have no chemistry together, and the unnatural dialogue does them no favors.

"Safe Haven" would be simply guilty of being criminally flavorless if so many elements didn’t combine together to inspire one continuous annoyed eye-roll. It’s a movie that aims to be as bland and safe as vanilla, yet somehow still messed up the flavor.

The main culprit is the overheated, soapy ex-husband detective subplot intertwined with the damp romance, which only becomes more laughably absurd as he becomes more obsessed with finding Katie and his next bottle of booze. He’s not a threat; he’s an eye-rolling cartoon, breaking laws, brooding with excessive angst and drinking enough that you begin to wonder if the sweat stain growing on his shirt is just pure vodka.

By the time "Safe Haven" reached its climactic battle – complete with fireworks and raging fire – and its asinine twist ending, my eyes had rolled so much, they rolled all the way around in their sockets, and I was looking at the inside of my skull. I easily preferred that to the dreck on the screen. 

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