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I walked into Safe Haven last night prepared to turn my nose up at the overly romantic Nicholas Sparks-isms and to expect a lot of people to fall victim to cancer. I had seen a few of the other movies based on Sparks’ books, so I had an idea of what was about to befall me. Once the movie started, however, I was a little ashamed of myself, because I really started to enjoy it. I giggled like a schoolgirl when hottie supreme Josh Duhamel wooed Julianne Hough. I even caught myself smiling alone in the dark as Duhamel’s character proved himself to be the greatest single father time and time again to his two adorable children. I shouldn’t be ashamed of myself, right? Director Lasse Hallström once directed What’s Eating Gilbert Grape!

This Safe Haven love fest did soon give way to my initial expectations. About halfway through there’s an incredibly stupid “twist,” and the film culminates with another “twist” so insane that it out-insanes every other Sparks joint I’ve seen. I involuntarily blurted out “Jesus Christ!” quite loudly in the theater as it went down. The romantic plot is very well executed and the two leads have chemistry to burn – Hallström helps create some very palpable connections between the characters. It’s just everything else that is pretty… god-awful.

The film opens with a young woman (Hough) with long brunette hair holding a bloody knife and backing out of a house. Did she kill someone? Well, you’d certainly think so by the way she hauls ass. We next see her at a bus depot with her hair in a short blonde bob. She’s a fugitive! She narrowly escapes Tierney (David Lyons), a Boston cop who is hot on her tail. Calling herself Katie, she takes a bus to Atlanta on her way to the small town of Southport, North Carolina, where she quickly finds a job waitressing and buys a “fixer-upper” cabin the middle of the woods. She has one neighbor, Jo (Cobie Smulders), who immediately welcomes her to the neighborhood and becomes her walking buddy.

A need for home improvements sends her to the local general store where she’s helped by the cutest little girl in the world, Lexi (Mimi Kirkland, extremely effective in her film debut). The two are interrupted by Lexi’s incredibly good-looking, tall drink of water father, Alex (Duhamel), who is instantly taken with the mysterious young woman. It’s not long before he becomes fully smitten with Katie thanks in part to seeing how good she is with his children (Lexi and his son Josh (Noah Lomax)). She’s a provider, just like his wife who died from cancer (Nicholas Sparks!). Their courtship is indeed swoon-worthy. Though as drunk cop Tierney closes in and Alex notices a “Wanted” picture of Katie at his local police station, will their love be able to survive such obstacles?

I guess I’ll reiterate the positives – and there are several. Well, the parts of the movie that I was just able to summarize are all perfectly fine. There is even some decent parallel action between Tierney closing in and Katie becoming more and more at home at Southport. This isn’t the most artistically directed film out there, but the outdoor shots were picturesque and bathed in light. We fully buy the leads as family or lovers – everyone seems believably interconnected as they would be in a small town. Kirkland and Lomax really go above and beyond the average child actors in that that their performances never seem affected or “actor-y.” Kirkland, especially, shines. With her incredibly winning toothless grin, she’s able to carry entire scenes and emote as well as any adult actor.

And the romance! Oh, the romance! I don’t typically care for movies marketed to ladies around Valentine’s Day, in fact I usually abhor them, but this somehow works for me. Alex is an all-around nice guy and finding love is so good for him and his family though being a family man doesn’t exactly extinguish the flames of his passion. He does sexy things to Katie like make out with her in front of a full restaurant with stolen kisses from outside the takeout window. Or almost hold hands at the beach. This is all so well done, and should make a sucker out of most girls who watch it – and it comes off as romantic without necessarily being cheesy, which is an important hurdle to overcome.

The negatives however are just so glaring that they are nearly impossible to gloss over – and it’s even difficult to mention half of them without revealing “spoilers.” For one, Sparks is obviously unable to hatch up a crime procedural that is even close to being plausible. The logic used here is practically nonexistent, and the reactions to everyone involved in the initial crime are so ridiculous and unnecessary… and they are what the entire film eventually hinges on. Hallström really needed to reign in Lyons here – perpetually sweaty and lacking in eyebrows, his character becomes this strange, laughable camp-tastic creature. His appearance onscreen warrants unintended guffaws from my press screening audience.

The ending of the film is so jaw-dropping terrible that if you see this, you might, quite possibly, leave the theater angry that even Sparks thinks that you’re that dumb (but apparently, the book ends the same way). The filmmakers should have cut this ending out if they wanted to salvage some of their dignity.

In sum, Safe Haven will entertain you. It will make you root for Alex and Katie to find love. It might even elicit some schoolgirl giggles during all the wooing. But then it smacks you cruelly in the head with a one-two punch of badness that reminds you that you are watching a Sparks movie. So take that all into consideration before heading out to theaters…

The Upside: Duhamel and Hough have great chemistry, his courtship of her is effectively romantic, and it’s a pleasure to watch their characters interact with the cute little kids. Also, the shooting locale is very picturesque.

The Downside: The hair-brained police chase, the laughably campy performance from David Lyons, “twist” #1, and most of all, “twist” #2. “Twist” #2 is a doozy, trust me.

On the Side: With decidedly repugnant real-life significant others Fergie and Ryan Seacrest at home, you almost wish that Safe Haven would inspire Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough see the light and run off together.

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