There was a great article a couple years back called "How to Write a Nicholas Sparks Movie." After a quick critique of the marketing for his movies and his approach to telling his stories, it breaks down the facts:
1) Nicholas Sparks is an author who churns out about one romance novel a year.
2) All of these books are almost immediately made into movies.
3) All of these books are the same book.
Truer words have never been spoken and because of this, Nicholas Sparks stories always come with a large degree of predictability. If a film critic going to his latest book-turned-movie adaptation were to write his or her entire review before seeing the film, roughly 90% of it would be accurate.
For years, Sparks has been telling the exact same story, repackaging them with a new disease or tragedy and puking them out to the public. Such monotony means that his movies are largely dependent on the strength of the main characters and the chemistry they create onscreen.
More often than not, the leads aren't up to the task, but Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough in this week's "Safe Haven" are different. Their relationship rings true and actually works, despite the cheese they're forced to work with.
Katie (Hough) is on the run from a police officer that is hot on her trail for unknown reasons. She eventually lands in a small town in North Carolina where she meets widower Alex (Duhamel). She's initially reluctant to pursue his advances, but his charm eventually wins her over and they begin seeing each other.
For the first time, at least as far as his movie adaptations go, Sparks switches it up. "Safe Haven" isn't a straight forward romance, though it of course features all of the Sparks gooeyness we've come to expect. It's actually somewhat of a romantic thriller and is amped up with a mystery.
Kudos must be given to him for mixing his all-too-familiar formula up a bit, but unfortunately, the film suffers from terrible timing. In any other circumstance, such a change would be welcome, but because the leads are so good together here, the movie, ironically enough, works best as an aforementioned straight forward romance. It's in the thriller elements that the film ultimately fails.
Just as Katie is adjusting happily to her new life, that cop tracks her down and the chase is on. What follows is a twist of Lifetime movie proportions, where the man's role of keeper-of-the-peace turns to something more sinister. At this point, the dialogue gets hammier, the music gets more manipulative and the scenarios become more clichéd.
It gets so ludicrous, it begins to feel like the film has somehow transitioned to a daytime soap opera. This feeling is only enhanced once another, final twist rears its ugly head. Although obvious in retrospect due to its none-too-subtle foreshadowing, it's handled so clumsily and fits the context of the story so poorly that it's difficult to predict.
Frankly, Sparks is such a simplistic writer, even the most discernible viewer will refuse to give him enough credit to pull such a silly, out-of-left-field move. It's a conflicting feeling as a film critic who has sat through each and every Sparks movie. I've begged for Sparks to do something different for years and now that he finally has, the result is shoddy at best.
Josh Duhamel is one of the few leading romance men who is charming and, despite his looks, can come off as vulnerable and Julianne Hough compliments him perfectly with her own beauty and vulnerability (the latter of which is brought out more by her above average performance than the writing that gives her character that trait).
Dumping them in an inane thriller was the wrong way to go. What "Safe Haven" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is that thrillers aren't Nicholas Sparks' strong suit. Then again, neither are romances. With any luck, he'll stop writing both and we won't have to sit through any more of these movies.