Feature Film, Safe Haven
As excited and entertained as I was seeing the new Julianne Hough/Josh Duhamel film, Safe Haven, the bad news is that it has received some really not so great reviews. The movie, based on the Nicholas Sparks novel and directed by famed director, Lasse Hallstrom, received 34/100 score from Metacritic (site that uses an average of 27 critics across the nation), and Rotten Tomatoes (a reviewing source) gave it 12/100. Overall, this was the second to lowest score out of about 20 new movies this season.
But, the viewing public had a bit different tally. Box office for Safe Haven topped the Bruce Willis film Good Day to Die Hard on its Valentine’s Day opening. It also did pretty well during the weekend with close to a 21.4 million take, just a few million short of the Willis film lead. Another good thing is that people enjoyed the film! 75% of those who went to see it said they liked it! While critics gave it an average score of 1/5 stars, audiences gave it 4/5 stars of those leaving reviews on Amazon.
I’m coming right out and confessing, this reviewer might be biased in Julianne Hough’s favor. Yes, I think Julianne is lovely, goal oriented, charismatic, and a very talented dancer, singer and choreographer. But, just how good an actor is she appearing in her first dramatic role?
Watching Julianne from the darkness of my comfy theater seat, glowing with fan love as I beheld her heavenly presence in a ten foot close up, my heart and mind shouted, “Julianne you’re doing GOOD!” I think she pulled through with flying colors. Coupled with her expected loveliness (although different, as I am used to her ballroom costumed, small screen presence, and here her image is a t-shirt and shorts girl with little make up), Julianne the actress has an endearing simple and straightforward likability, unique to her, but similar to Jennifer Aniston. You like this girl, and not just for her in-your-face beauty. The camera just loves her. She projects a sweet and spontaneous sensibility, an easy natural quality and transparency of feeling.
Thus, I was perplexed and annoyed to read one critic’s opinion that she is Barbie-like, and that Josh Duhamel is as vapid as Ken, Barbie doll’s companion. How unfair, malicious and untrue to both!! It’s apparently a cheap critic’s trick to dismiss them as superficial just because they’re gorgeous. Duhamel has great and sizzling chemistry with Hough, which is perfect for this falling in love story. As an actor, he has a self-effacing charm, implying he doesn’t take himself too seriously and making him more accessible. Duhamel is especially credible, vulnerable and genuinely appealing in his role as Alex, a young anguished widower trying to cope as the father of two scene-stealing children, Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and Josh (Noah Lomax).
Julianne’s character, Katie Feldman, is seen at the start of the film escaping a bloody crime scene in a Boston home. Terrified, she disguises herself and boards a bus to Atlanta. A determined detective, Australian actor David Lyons, is on her trail, doggedly pursuing. Lyons is quite effective giving a compelling and exciting performance. On the way, the bus makes a stop at an idyllic North Carolina port town. Katie has a gut feeling this might be her refuge, her safe haven. So she finds a job as a waitress, rents a fixer-upper cabin, and settles in.
Looking for paint to brighten her home, she encounters adorable little sprite Lexie, at the town’s general store which is run by her widowed dad and local hunk (Duhamel). Katie and Lexie are drawn to each other. In her performance, Julianne shows an easy and endearing rapport for children, which of course to us, enhances her character’s appeal with Alex. Naturally, we expect these two handsome creatures to get together! It’s a credit to the lead actors that they show an easy chemistry and genuine zest for each other. Julianne may have polished her ability to show sensitivity to Duhamel’s character from taking on the personas during her plethora of dancing performances where expression and character attitude are required.
Whatever the reason, we do care for this couple, a tortured widowed father and a troubled woman in distress. Her secret we will learn in time. Hough and Duhamel succeed in humanizing these characters. They both exude a basic decency and a sweetness of being. They transfer their humanizing quality to their characters. Their looks are downplayed in this movie. Not once do they wear anything but unmatched old shorts and T-shirts, not a scene when they are made up. Duhamel plays Alex as a kind of uncoordinated klutz who bangs into doors. He deftly creates a worried dad and grieving widow, easily winning our hearts. Julianne displays genuine mummy love for the children and loving empathy for Alex. It seems like their courtship takes forever, so when they finally do get together, we want to get up on our chairs and applaud!
Other characters include Alex’s easy going uncle who provides a folksy sweet presence. And along with Lexie, there’s rebellious Josh, who misses his dead mother. And not least, there’s Jo (Cobie Smoulders), Katie’s neighbor who befriends and helps her deal with her emotions. She will play a pivotal role in the film.
I found the screenplay very natural and engaging, with a deft human touch. The cinematography is beautiful and the North Carolina beach landscape has a bright supporting role in the film. The fusion of romance and ominous suspense seems to be typical in Nicholas Sparks novels, and may be a balancing act which appeals to the public (referenced as well in The Notebook and Dear John). Director Lassie Halstrom is very reputed (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat). In the aspects that work for this film, including the fine acting performances, Halstrom surely played a central role as an inspired director.
Romance meets suspense thriller in Safe Haven. It worked as a great Valentine’s Day movie, an audience pleaser, and box office hit. Yet the film has one fatal flaw in my opinion. There’s a whopper of a surprise ending that defies credibility and ruins the film’s integrity. It would be a spoiler to reveal it, but surely it’s this one plot shocker at the end that made the critics go bonkers! Personally, I would love to have had that part edited out and my darling Julianne had a proper vehicle to launch her drama debut as an actor. I do have to say though, that I would be remiss if I did not state that there were some reviewers who didn’t mind the twist and didn’t take it as negatively as I. Looking at the silver lining though, the public might still deliver her a successful start into a sparkling acting career. Fingers crossed!
Thus, after a huge disbelieving laugh at the end, I chose to ignore the last ten minutes and thoroughly enjoyed the rest. Apparently, the approving audiences decided to do the same and some may have even reveled in the twist. Either way, audiences have given it two thumbs up!