A film review by Craig J. Koban July 11, 2013

SAFE HAVEN j
½ 

2013, PG-13, 112 mins.

 

Julianne Hough as Katie  /  Josh Duhamel as Alex  /  Cobie Smulders as Jo  /  David Lyons as Tierney

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom  /  Written by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, based on the book by Nicholas Sparks

SAFE HAVEN safely has two things going for it: (1) Star Julianne Hough is endlessly photogenic in just about anything she’s a part of and (2) the film’s sumptuous and picturesque North Carolina settings are equally beautiful.  

Unfortunately, that’s about all this adaptation of Nicolas Spark’s novel (now the eighth from Hollywood!) has going for it, as it's lost in a foggy haze of Southern Gothic soap opera schmaltz, not to mention that it has a head-smackingly inane ending that literally has to be seen to be believed. 

I was a true teary-eyed sucker for the earliest Sparks film adaptation, THE NOTEBOOK, but it’s become agonizingly clear that each new film inspired from his literary source material – from DEAR JOHN, THE LAST SONG, THE LUCKY ONE, and now this – have somehow become more laughably forgettable and awful with each new addition.  What’s even worse is that Lasse Hallstrom is at the helm here, whom is, to be sure, no stranger to adapting Sparks (he was behind DEAR JOHN), but the director of such resoundingly fine dramas like THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, THE HOAX, and CHOCOLAT is kind of nowhere to be found here.  It’s a lethargic journeyman-like turn for the veteran and acclaimed director, someone who is certainly far above the type of cockamamie material here.  

The film begins by showing Katie (Hough) running through a suburban neighborhood, covered in blood, and seeking refuge.  A considerate neighbor lets her in, after which she cuts and dyes her hair, gathers a few possessions, evades police, and heads to a nearby bus station and proceeds to Southport, North Carolina, a wonderfully out-of-the-way tourist destination that looks like it could easily conceal her whereabouts from authorities back home.  When she arrives, assumingly penniless and without any food or shelter, she is forced to sleep overnight under a pier, but by the next morning – presto! – she is able to inexplicably get a job as a waitress at a local fish restaurant and rent a cute and cozy fixer-upper cottage in the woods…all without any apparent background checks.  You’d also think that a woman wanted by the police would not want to appear in public as a waitress at the most popular crab shack in the town, but never mind. 

 

 

Still, Katie desperately tries to remain hidden from just about everyone, but she does allow for an initially nosy neighbor, Jo (the attractive and appealing Cobie Smulders) into her very tight inner circle.  However, since this is a dopey-eyed Nicolas Sparks romance, Katie is required to hook up with the town hunk, the recently widowed Alex (Josh Duhamel, who does underplay his role rather charmingly) who lost his wife to cancer (Sparks loves killing off spouses to elicit future romances).  He runs the town convenience store with the help of his kids, and as Katie shops there for home improvement supplies, there’s a Sparksian spark between her and the hunky man from the get-go.  Slowly but surely, Alex and Katie begin bonding, which leads to love, some PG-13-ified moonlight love scenes, and Katie becoming a surrogate wife to him and a mother to his kids.  Alas, just when things are going a-okay, her dark past swoons in and threatens her newfound happiness. 

I will say this: Hallstrom knows how to film beautiful actors and make them look endlessly attractive.  To be fair, Hough and Duhamel have nice, unforced, low-key chemistry and are likeable enough to make viewers want to yearn for their lifelong happiness.  He also knows how to present the fishing village locales of North Carolina (Sparks’ adopted home state) with an ethereal and pristine glow that helps embody the romance within the film with rich atmosphere.  Hallstrom at least has the capacity for generating good performances from his cast and making a good-looking picture. 

Regrettably, though, SAFE HAVEN becomes more stupefyingly predictable and routine the longer it draws out.  The visual and storytelling clichés of Sparks are everywhere to be found here – handwritten letters from loved ones from the past, terminally-ill spouses, the initial zeal of finding new love, love scenes set during a downpour of rain, misunderstandings between lovers than later gives way to forgiveness, yadda yadda – and the film certainly aspires to tug at heartstrings as a preordained and pre-packaged Valentine’s Day release.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to ring sentimental tears out of moviegoers (THE NOTEBOOK was tastefully manipulative at doing just that), but SAFE HAVEN seems to be pathetically manufacturing conventional moments to elicit such a reaction.  

Something needs to be said about the final act and final few minutes of this film, which will be mightily hard for me to do without going heavy into spoiler territory, but I will endeavor to do my best here.  A crazed man – an alcoholic cop with, shall we say, personal ties to Katie that obsessively wants to bring her in – becomes a heavy-handed part of the film’s silly SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY-styled climax that hits every perfunctory beat in the book.  But the real problem with the film is a final unnecessary reveal that, if actually true, would leave us pragmatically thinking that Katie is, indeed, a mentally unstable person that needs more to be in a straight jacket than in the arms of her newfound love.  The ending contains such an eye-rollingly far-fetched and preposterous plot twist that even M. Night Shyamalan himself would have thought it to be a horrendous idea.  Very few films have gone from being derivatively watchable to intelligence insulting during its finale as SAFE HAVEN. 

Okay…okay…these films are not meant for me.  I accept that.  I really do.  There are things to admire in SAFE HAVEN, there are just not in abundance.  Again, I liked looking at both Hough and the painterly village vistas of North Carolina.  The performances by all are decent enough and the main leads are equally appealing together on screen.  Yet, SAFE HAVEN never really euphorically emerges as a moving, heartfelt, and invigorating southern melodrama worthy of our interest.  That, and you’d think that an adept and wise filmmaker like Hallstrom would have demanded a re-write of the film’s ham-infested and frankly gag-reflex-inducing conclusion.  You just may get whiplash from all of the headshaking you will do during it.  Trust me. 

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