Or, just jerky, depending on your point of view.
The movie begins with a woman we’ll eventually know as Katie (Julianne Hough) covered in blood and running from a suburban house. When we next see her, she’s dyed her brunette hair blond, cut it short and is headed for a bus out of town. As her bus is leaving, a police officer we eventually learn is last-named Tierney (David Lyons) is searching the various buses (but not hers) trying to find her.
Ooo, why is he searching for her? Has she done something terrible? These are questions you might ask yourself if you haven’t seen the trailer or any movie on the Lifetime network or any Nicholas Sparks movie ever.
Katie rides the bus until it stops in the small seaside town of Southport, N.C. Though the bus continues on, she decides to make a go of it there, perhaps because of the soul-quieting scenes of peaceful water and seagulls or perhaps because the owner of the local market is Alex (Duhamel), a widower with two small kids, Josh (Noah Lomax) and Lexie (Mimi Kirkland); a sad sad story, and killer abs. They strike up a friendship, but all is not perfect. Josh is, when it’s convenient to the plot, concerned that Katie might replace his mom. And then there’s Tierney, who gets drunker and crazier and ever more determined to find out where Katie is.
In achingly slow flashbacks, we get more and more of Katie’s story until we finally get to what you could have guessed in the first scene — SPOILER ALERT, Tierney is Katie’s violent husband from whom she ran in fear for her life.
So long, it takes so long to get to this. Remember the early The Simpsons episode (“Lisa the Greek” if the Internet can be believed) where Homer calls the sports hotline that charges by the minute? “With ...winds... coming... out... of... the... west...” or something like that, while Homer starts to lose his temper. That is exactly how it feels watching this movie. Safe Haven slowly doles out pieces of Katie’s story to, I don’t know, build tension? Or keep us in suspense about whether this dewy movie is perhaps about a vicious killer on the run from the law? Because it so clearly isn’t. In wasting time pretending that we don’t know Katie’s backstory, the movie misses a chance to flesh the characters out, to give either Katie or Alex some depth. The closest thing we get to storytelling flair is a plotline involving Jo (Cobie Smulders), a local woman who befriends Katie. It adds a very, very minor note of unpredictability to the story, but it’s a stupid kind of unpredictability, the plot equivalent of a sudden cream pie in the face.
On the bright side, like so many Nicholas Sparks movies, if your thing is coastal shabby chic, forget the story and look at this as a two-hour HGTV-like tour through fixer-uppers and artfully worn paint jobs. Hough and Duhamel don’t have much in the way of chemistry, but the aged wood finishes and the big picture window in Alex’s dead wife’s office are very romantic.
Fans of weepies deserve more than this soggy romance, but fans of Restoration Hardware’s salvaged wood furniture may find something to sigh over. D
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and for sexuality. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom with a screenplay by Leslie Bohem & Dana Stevens (from a book by Nicholas Sparks), Safe Haven is an hour and 55 minutes long and is distributed by Relativity Media.