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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 12:09 pm

Shameless melodrama kills Haven

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Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel in Safe Haven.

I think I could make an argument that romantic movies are the hardest sort to make successfully. Tone and sincerity are so important in exercises of this sort and probably the most tenuous elements of these films. One moment that comes off as too sappy or melodramatic and the spell is broken. Thinking back on great movie love stories, you’d be hard pressed to name true classics of the genre. Casablanca (1942) rightly belongs at the top of the list while Wuthering Heights (1939); Now, Voyager (1942); Doctor Zhivago (1965); An Officer and a Gentlemen (1982); Moonstruck (1987); Love Affair (1994); The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Titanic (1997) would be on my top 10 list, as would The Notebook (2004).

The best of the Nicholas Sparks’ adaptations, the film benefitted from the chemistry of its two leads (Ryan Gosling and Rachel Adams), a strong director (Nick Cassavetes) and most importantly, a plot that developed naturally without any unnecessary melodrama. The author knew at that point in his career that there’s drama enough in seeing two people we care for fall in love. Unfortunately, Sparks abandoned that model right after the success of The Notebook. Every film adaptation of his work has been far too contrived and busy to be convincing.

The latest is Safe Haven and it falls right in line with Dear John and The Last Song, focusing on two tragic characters that find love with one another, only to have to overcome one ludicrous obstacle after another to live happily ever after. The couple in question is made up of Alex (Josh Duhamel), a tragic widower, and Katie (Julianne Hough), a battered woman on the run. They meet up in a small seaside town in North Carolina where he’s the proprietor of the only general store Wal-Mart hasn’t put out of business. Katie likes the look of the place, decides to settle down there, gets a job waiting tables and rents a rundown shack in the middle of nowhere. After an awkward start, she gets to know Alex and his two kids – mad-at-the-world Josh (Noah Lomax) and cute-as-a-button Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) – and before you know it, the couple is cavorting on the beach, giggling in the dark and are on their way to marching down the aisle.

So far so good but Sparks, who served as one of the film’s producers, and screenwriters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens can’t leave well enough alone. Preposterous coincidences and shameless melodrama rear their ugly heads to torment the couple and insult the audience, driving an engaging story into the ground. This is director Lasse Hallstrom’s second foray into Sparks’ territory (Dear John), and while he’s proven adapt at creating engaging human dramas (The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), he’s hobbled here by the material that no amount of finessing can fix.

That’s a shame as Duhamel and Hough are very good here, generating a realistic sense of chemistry and creating appealing characters that I wish I had met in a better movie. They nearly save the film but by the time Katie’s psychotic husband (David Lyons, in a thankless role) discovers her whereabouts through a ridiculous turn of events and Lexie is put in unnecessary peril, I was shaking my head and chuckling at the lengths the film went through to put the two lovers in jeopardy. Like nearly all of the Sparks adaptations, Safe Haven isn’t an exercise in romance but simply a display of bad storytelling the likes of which far too many people have fallen in love with.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org

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