starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, Cobie Smulders
screenplay: Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens
directed by: Lasse Hallström
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality.
Safe Haven is Nicholas Sparks’ half-assed rip-off of Sleeping with the Enemy. I could seriously end the review there and have communicated everything you need to know about it. But because I take particular pleasure in mocking Sparks’ ongoing crusade against creative storytelling, I will continue. The Hackmaster General’s last shitfest, The Lucky One, gave me more material than nearly anything else I’ve reviewed on this fine site. Having set the bar so high/low with that schlocky melodrama, I was actually pretty pumped to endure Safe Haven and parse through its awfulness as though preparing for a roast. Sadly for my schadenfreude, it is far too mild and tepid to really savor destroying. But hey, let’s give it a go.
Julianne Hough stars as Katie, whom we first glimpse sporting a long brown wig that immediately transforms Hough’s beaming Utah visage into that of a swarthy strong-featured Italian woman in the manner of Lady Gaga or Lindsay Lohan. Footage of Katie fearfully fleeing a Boston-area house is intercut with cheap throwaway titles that immediately establish the production value as Lifetime at best. We’re not sure what’s happened to Katie, but there’s blood in her wig and we soon get the idea that she may have killed her abusive husband. We then meet Tierney (David Lyons), the boozy and obsessive cop immediately on her trail. Tierney catches up to Katie quite speedily, but fails to apprehend her before she’s given herself a cute blonde bob and boarded a bus to Atlanta.
When the bus makes a pit stop so Katie can take a dump, she finds herself in the tiny seaside North Carolina town of Southport. She is immediately seduced by the peace and tranquility of this small community, and decides to stay put rather than shit and run. Sparks loves a story about a recently traumatized twenty-something who randomly settles in a tiny Southern town, so before you can say “derivative horseshit,” Katie has found a waitressing job and a fixer-upper cabin in the woods which, sadly, is not being monitored by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. She also finds a new love interest in Alex (Josh Duhamel), a freakishly handsome widower raising a lovely young daughter (Mimi Kirkland) and a perennially bitchfaced son (Noah Lomax). But as Katie and Alex’s romance heats up, Tierney’s investigation – and Katie’s secret – threaten to thwart the Nicholas Sparks novel she has inexplicably found herself living out.
I was deeply saddened to learn that Safe Haven was directed by the once-great Lasse Hallström, three-time Oscar nominee and director of such warmly received favorites as My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat. And that sadness turned to gobsmacked shock when I realized that this is actually Hallström’s second Sparks adaptation, having also helmed Dear John. Good god man, how fucking severe is your gambling debt? Hallström’s career has certainly been in a critical freefall since his poorly-received 2001 adaptation of The Shipping News, and if his recent choices are any indication, he’s now fully abandoned any sense of artistic pride in his work. Still, he directs Safe Haven with an understated Scandinavian detachment, downplaying the story’s more melodramatic elements with unadorned photography and a fairly minimalist soundtrack.
But at times that understated detachment can play as dramatic ineptitude, and Hallström seems committed to giving the film the same molasses-slow pace and “what’s your hurry?” Southern casualness as Southport itself. Consequently, many scenes seem to last FOREVER; you will frequently find yourself thinking, Why am I still watching this? How is it possible that they’re still just standing in a sundry shop? Hough and Duhamel are affably charming and share enough chemistry to send Seacrest scampering back to the Beard Club of Aspiring Starlets, but while they’re easy on the eyes and Hough certainly looks how I’d picture a waitress at a sunny seaside diner, they aren’t exactly redolent of complex inner lives.
Although Safe Haven does successfully conjure a bit of suspense in its final act (if only because everything before it is so bland and soporific), it is still cursed with its damnable source material. In his infinite authorial skill, Sparks gives us not one but two twists in the film’s second half. The first twist is visible from space, but I can safely say you will not see the second twist coming. And why is that? BECAUSE IT IS A FUCKING BULLSHIT TWIST. It is eye-gougingly absurd, a total and complete ass-rape of the tacit rules of storytelling. You will know it when it happens, and if you do see it, I strongly encourage you to scream FUCK YOU NICHOLAS SPARKS right in the middle of the theater.
There’s actually another twist I really expected the movie to take, and although it didn’t happen, it’s what I choose to remember about Safe Haven. Shortly after Katie relocates to Southport, she discovers a woman standing on her porch, staring into her windows. The woman jumps when Katie calls out to her, then strides over and introduces herself as Jo (Cobie Smulders). She has a far more masculine energy than Katie, tall, plain-faced, and deep-voiced, leering at her wolfishly as Katie exudes feminine cuteness. The two bond over the fact that they both live in cabins, and Jo says how excited she is to meet another “rustically inclined woman.” Ahem. From that moment forward, Jo is just around Katie constantly, hanging at the cabin and accompanying her on every walk. And her name is Jo. And she is rustically inclined. JO IS OBVIOUSLY A LESBIAN. And although Nicholas Sparks is apparently ignorant of this fact, it’s still the highlight of the imaginary movie that played in my mind while I sat through this nonsense.
Safe Haven opens nationwide today.