Movie versions of Nicholas Sparks films have been highly successful, especially “The Notebook,” which helped establish the careers of Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. With a pedigree like that, the film “Safe Haven” has an awful lot to live up to as the latest Sparks adaptation. The film does reach those lofty heights, in part because of director Lasse Hallstrom’s vision. The biggest credit though has to go to the two main stars, Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel, who are very convincing as two people with painful pasts who find each other against the odds and fall in love.
The two display the type of chemistry that only happens naturally when two people are compatible. Even the best of actors could not artificially manufacture this type of connection that these two actors share. It is equal parts sweet and sultry, a progression that happens organically as the movie moves through its paces. It all begins when Hough’s character, Katie, leaves town quickly to board a bus to Atlanta in the hopes of escaping a mysterious event that isn’t explained until later. She gets sidetracked in the sleepy coastal town of Southport, North Carolina, where the newly widowed Alex (Duhamel) resides with his two children.
Katie decides that perhaps Southport is a better option than Atlanta, and quickly finds shelter in a quaint but rundown cottage where neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders) befriends her. She gets a job in the local diner and seems to be enjoying her new life when she meets Alex and his precious young children. Soon, the two are spending more time together, both with and without his kids in tow. The two fall in love but face lots of obstacles if they are to ever have a chance of being together. The audience isn’t privy as to what exactly made Katie run from her old life, but with the display of love put on between Katie and Alex, they likely won’t care. From the moment they lock eyes, the audience will definitely rooting for these two star-crossed lovers.
Hough is fairly new to acting, which is why her ability to have so much chemistry with every actor around her is a surprise. She first came into the public eye as one of the professional dancers on the ABC reality competition “Dancing with the Stars” alongside her brother Derek. When she left the show after several seasons to pursue acting, nobody really knew what to expect from her. After she nabbed the plum role of the preacher’s daughter in the remake of “Footloose,” people realized that she has real acting chops. Her chemistry in that film was certainly not a flash in the pan, as she displays the same easy bond with Duhamel in “Safe Harbor.”
Duhamel is a much more established actor, but he hasn’t had a ton of roles that have allowed him to show his range, especially as a leading man. He is best known for the “Transformers” movies from director Michael Bay, who mostly had Duhamel shooting guns and running away from gigantic computer-generated robots. Before that, he was best known for his 106-episode stint on the television show “Las Vegas,” where he rarely got to show a tender side. Fans who caught the charming 2010 family film “Ramona and Beezus” may be the only ones who have seen how effortlessly charming Duhamel can be when he is playing a man in love. Those who haven’t seen that film will finally see his considerable talent for romantic leads in “Safe Haven.”
One of the biggest surprises is how the two leads, after some fairly long breaks away from each other, can pick up right where they left off and never lose their spark. The film is set in the present day, but there are frequent flashbacks to Katie’s past, which helps explain why she is on the run when she lands in Southport. These flashbacks are necessary, but they cut away from the developing relationship between Katie and Alex, which might kill the chemistry between a lesser couple. In “Safe Haven,” the spark never goes out because there is simply too much heat and obvious desire between Katie and Alex.
This film may finally establish both actors as romantic leads, something that has not quite happened yet although they both clearly display a talent for it. In fact, both could probably fit just as well into a romantic comedy as they would a romantic drama like “Safe Harbor.” The romantic comedy genre could use an infusion of fresh blood, and this unlikely duo may just be able to provide it.