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(2013) (Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young woman escapes from Boston to a small southern town and becomes involved with a widowed father, all while hoping her past doesn't catch up with her.
Katie (JULIANNE HOUGH) is a young woman who's gone on the run from Boston, heading south on a bus to get away from a bad situation. Local detective Tierney (DAVID LYONS) is desperate to find her, and has issued an all points bulletin listing her as a murder suspect. She manages to elude him and arrives in the small coastal town of Southport that she initially views as a pit stop, but then realizes could be a safe haven for her. She ends up getting a waitressing job at a local restaurant and a place to live out in the woods near another woman, Jo (COBIE SMULDERS), who similarly favors the isolation of the place.

Katie also ends up befriending widower Alex (JOSH DUHAMEL) who runs the local convenience shop while trying to raise his kids, Josh (NOAH LOMAX) and Lexie (MIMI KIRKLAND). While Katie is initially reluctant to get attached to anyone, she eventually finds herself falling for Alex and vice-versa. As their relationship blossoms, Tierney continues on his relentless quest to track her down and bring her to justice, all with Alex and everyone else unaware of her troubled past.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
American novelist Nicholas Sparks has (as of this review date) written and published seventeen novels, eight of which have been turned into movies beginning with "Message in a Bottle" back in 1999. None have been huge box office successes, but they've all made money, with "The Notebook" bringing in the most bucks (around $105 million domestically, if adjusted for inflation). The batting average for how reviewers look at them, however, isn't as favorable, with only "The Notebook" scoring higher than 50% favorable, and the rest coming in somewhere between 20 and 32%.

Part of that's because many of them are essentially the same sort of melodramatic romance tale only with slightly different characters, settings and plotlines. The running joke is that someone always dies in the end and/or an unwanted figure from one's person's past shows up to ruin one character's newfound peace and/or happiness. I won't ruin any such "surprises" in "Safe Haven," Sparks' latest tale to hit the big screen, but both the decent if unremarkable box office returns and critical disdain will likely accompany this release.

To be fair, and despite the retreading of overall material, part of it's okay (faint praise), and those are the scenes featuring leads Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough (who reportedly replaced Keira Knightley, although I simply can't see that actress appearing in a Sparks' film, what with the aforementioned critical disdain). She plays a woman who's escaping from her past (surprise, surprise), while he plays a widower (ditto) raising two kids in a small coastal town (double ditto).

While Hough's character goes through the predictable motions (on the run at first, then just trying to remain low, then falling in love despite her reservations, etc.), she and Duhamel's have solid chemistry in their favor, while the girl playing his young daughter (Mimi Kirkland) might be movie character precocious, but her charming performance goes a long way in winning over viewers.

Alas, the filmmakers - Lasse Hallstrom ("Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," "The Cider House Rules") in the director's chair and Gage Lansky and Dana Stevens behind the keyboard -- can't leave well enough alone and just let that budding romance build and play out on its own. While I'm guessing they're remaining somewhat faithful to Sparks' work (I haven't read it or any of them), they unfortunately keep dragging up the past as the dramatic complication endangering Katie's newfound life, peace and romance.

And that complication arrives in the form of a detective (David Lyons) who's hot on her trail regarding some bit of violence, a knife and a body lying on the floor as seen early in the film to set up our "what happened" scenario. So that we don't forget about the doggedly determined cop, the filmmakers keep cutting to scenes of him trying to figure out where the wanted young woman has fled to.

Perhaps in the hands of others, this might have had a chance of working. As it's played here, however, the cop's scenes become increasingly laughable and distracting. A third act revelation doesn't do that any favors, and the melodrama of it all nears camp as well as a predictable inevitability (although I'll admit I guessed wrong about the who, where and with what weapon parameters -- FYI, and to dispel any such rumors -- it isn't Professor Plum in the ballroom with the candlestick). Similarly, some might figure out yet another surprise revelation before it's dropped on viewers at the very end (and which ruins, in my opinion, what was actually turning out to be a poignant moment), but for many it will likely only add insult to injury.

Simply put, if you like the sort of romance, danger and, yes, death that routinely occurs in adaptations of Sparks' novels, this might be right up your cinematic alley. On the other hand, if you can't stand the melodrama, predictability and such that also usually populates those works, you might experience some sort of gag reflex. Decent in some parts and downright bad to awful in others, "Safe Haven" will likely continue to reinforce the author's track record with viewers and critics alike. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 6, 2013 / Posted February 14, 2013

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