Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Lasse Hallström is one of the more consistent directors of popcorn schmaltz working today, though even he can’t find a way to make sense of Nicholas Sparks’ latest foray into trite truisms and punishing sentimentality.

The film begins enticingly enough, as a young woman named Katie (Julianne Hough) arrives in a small South Carolina town, having run away from something (or someone) troubling in her past. When she meets charming, good-looking store owner Alex (Josh Duhamel), the pair hit it off, though Katie is torn between keeping a low profile and giving in to her feelings. It all comes to a head once Detective Tierney (David Lyons) arrives in town, and her secret slowly unfurls.

It’ll take the most forgiving and undemanding Valentine’s Day audiences for Safe Haven to find its feet; more so than any other Nicholas Sparks adaptation, this date movie dud relies on playing its cards close to its chest, and that is partially its undoing.

Hallström keeps the two key elements – the romance and Katie’s dark past – spatially sparse from one another, but insists upon cross-cutting between them frequently, creating a tonal chasm from which the picture is never able to recover. One minute, it’s all doom and gloom as the police close in on Katie, and the next, she’s prancing around in a bikini and building sandcastles.

It’s a shame because the film looks superb – Terry Stacey’s lensing deserves a better film accompanying it – and the acting far surpasses the usual expectations of a film like this. Hough, in her first role outside the realm of music, is an appealing and likeable lead, while Josh Duhamel accomplishes the dreamboat role effortlessly.

Their chemistry accounts for most of what works throughout, though as to be expected, the love scenes are as neutered, un-erotic and devoid of passion as you can expect from material aimed at young teens. Aside from Duhamel’s screen children, who ably play the cute card, the rest of the cast largely fade into the ether; most bizarre is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Cobie Smulders as Katie’s friend Jo, which barely qualifies as a cameo and has the sole use of setting up a later story thread.

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Almost everything that happens in this film is in the service of not one but two plot twists, the first of which is more palpable if only because it’s grounded in some sort of reality, though causes the film to veer off wildly into jarring action-thriller territory.

The second, sure to go down in the annals of film history as one of the most mishandled cinematic sleights of hand, arrives in the final moments of the film and completely blindsides the viewer, evoking plenty of chortling and sarcastic applause in the press screening I attended.

That Hallström thought this a reasonable way to end his film is proof enough – if his other Sparks adaptation, the dire Dear John wasn’t – that his usually reliable penchant for the heartfelt is not suited to the more manipulative, crass stylings of these insipid teen novels.

Safe Haven is a low point for even the subterranean standards of Nicholas Sparks on screen. Though it begins well enough, director Hallström is simply unable to get a firm grasp on the material, resulting in plenty of troubling tonal shifts. Sure to be one of the year’s worst, it all ends with a ludicrously mishandled plot twist guaranteed to send audiences into paroxysms of laughter. A feel good film indeed, then.

Safe Haven is in US cinemas tomorrow and in the UK on March 1st.

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This article was first posted on February 13, 2013