Tongue in cheek, series romance novelist Angela Thirkell had her recurring novelist character, Mrs. Morland, tell friends that “All my books are exactly alike. That is why people like them.”
Nebraskan Nicholas Sparks is the big romance novelist today. I know his work through films—”Message in Bottle,” “The Notebook,” “Dear John,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” and so on. The new Sparks movie, “Safe Haven,” is pretty much exactly like the other ones.
It is set on the Atlantic coast, in a rustic small town that could be a tourist destination of a sort. A resident has a romantic adventure, including a mystery of some kind—not a murder mystery but an inquiry into the personality or identity of another character. There is some sort of narrative trick, too—Rachel McAdams has amnesia, Richard Gere and Greg Kinnear have trouble with their kids, Channing Tatum or Tatum Channing has to go into the Army, Mandy Moore’s about to die, Gena Rowlands has memory loss, and such like. Josh Ephrom walks five hundred miles and five hundred more and so on.
In Lasse Hallstrom’s film version of Sparks’s “Safe Haven,” a young woman (Julianne Hough) disguises herself, changes her name, and takes a bus down the east coast until she finds rustic little Southport, North Carolina. So the inquiry will concern “Katie’s” reason for hiding out and the setting is established, true to form.
She takes a job at a sea-side cafe, comes into possession of a rickety forest cabin, makes friends of a sort with a mysterious brunette named Jo (Cobie Smulders), and finds herself attracted to a young widower (Josh the flying Duhamel) and his two small kids. The romance is depicted as a seemingly endless series of acoustic ballads play. This is also true to Sparks form. And the ballads are enough to send anyone male screaming from the theater.
Whenever “Katie” goes to sleep, she dreams and we see parts of her recollection of the events shortly before she fled from Boston. We also get cut-aways to contemporary action there, where a police detective is trying to find “Katie.” Her wanted posters say she may have killed someone.
Eventually we learn that the cop is a really hard-core alcoholic, that he and “Katie” are married, that he was abusing her on her last night in bean town, that she got away by sticking him in the side with a butcher knife, and that he has been suspended from the force. He sneaks into a neighbor’s house one night, plays back the answers on the answering machine, luckily finds the one (and only) from “Katie,” and notes the number from which the call was made.
This leads him to Southport, which he reaches on the big tourist day, July 4, while the widower is on a boat setting off the town’s fireworks. The cop has drunken love and murder in his heart. And somehow—the movie doesn’t say how—he knows that his wife Erin is now called “Katie.” We know this because he calls her “Katie” when they meet.
We have also learned a little about the widower, a grocer who is having a little trouble with his six or seven year-old son. The late wife left letters for family members to be delivered on specific occasions, and then she died of cancer. Three years have passed.
OK. But what’s the Sparks’s narrative trick here? Well, there is that brunette. We may wonder what Jo is doing in the story. Apparently she is just there to give “Katie” someone with whom she can talk over her problems. But there is something odd about her…
So generally speaking, “Safe Haven” is just like all the other Sparks movies. If you liked them and like Duhamel, and if you don’t get wretchedly sick of pop ballads, the movie may amuse you. Your beau? Maybe not so much.