Even by Nicholas Sparks standards, Safe Haven feels dopey. The eighth film made from the novelist’s catalog is another predictable seaside romance, one populated with uninteresting characters and low production value. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules), the undisputed king of Sparks cinema with his second such credit, the film is unimaginative soapy junk made all the more ridiculous by an absurd twist ending.
Following the Sparks formula of boy + girl + sand, Safe Haven’s tale of young Katie (Julianne Hough) finding love with widower Alex (Josh Duhamel) is a slow, yawn-heavy one. Set in the coastal North Carolina hamlet of Southport, her troubled past is a decent obstacle to Happy Ever After, but is so poorly developed that the ending is never in doubt. Depicted through an ambiguous opening flight from Boston and expanded via conveniently chronological dreams, Katie’s secret woes are of no concern to Alex and his fellow slack-jawed yokels. Trusting to hyperbolized lengths, the townsfolk care not for her last name or other relevant information, allowing her to get a job, begin work, find a house with the aid of a realtor, and move in all improbably on the same day she steps off her bus.
With no hint of her squatting in abandoned buildings or bathing anywhere (though she’s consistently well-groomed), the eschewing of a realistic timeline suggests that the filmmakers care little for a sound story, a laziness that crops up again and again. The level of narrative clumsiness carries through to Katie’s bland relationship with neighbor/fellow refuge-seeker Jo (Cobie Smulders) and the hurdle-free courtship of Alex and his two cute yet dull children. In their interactions, rampant moralizing is colored with cheap laughs, namely Alex’s inability to open doors, all of which Hallstrom oversees as if fearful of being stimulating.
The good times continue back in Boston, where Detective Tierney (David Lyons) relentlessly pursues Katie. Consistent in style to the beach scenes despite the tonal shift, random glimpses of his investigation are outrageously bad with the officer behaving like an unfunny, soulless Inspector Clouseau. Once he inevitably tracks her down, however, there’s legitimate tension as to what exactly he’ll do or when he’ll pop up, and for a few seemingly accidental minutes, Hallstrom crafts a truly dangerous atmosphere. Unsure what to do with the sudden competence, the fruition of this threat unsurprisingly lands with a thud, restoring the hapless balance and reverting Tierney back to the simple excuse for drama that he always was.
The standard Sparksian nothingness wrapped up, Safe Haven has one final surprise in store and it’s a doozy. Though the revelation answers a few nagging questions, it also raises multiple others, including one concerning the author’s sanity. If the ending is indeed true to the book, it’s astounding to think that millions of readers went along with something so far removed from reality without making a stink. The craziness is nearly enough to warrant seeing the reveal for oneself, but doing so would require sitting through the preceding waste of time and that level of self-torture is not recommended.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality.
Safe Haven is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.