The biggest problem with Nicholas Sparks’ writing is that he doesn’t understand character development very well, and by extension, he doesn’t understand drama or romance very well. He seems to know that it’s sad when people die, but he doesn’t know why, so he just throws in a random death as cheap emotional manipulation. He makes his couples sickeningly sweet but gives them no development beyond that, and so he resorts to incredibly contrived plot machinations to add conflict. All of those problems (and others) reached their apex in “Safe Haven,” the latest film based on one of his novels.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Katie Feldman (Julianne Hough) escaped from her oh-so-mysterious past life (no points for guessing what that entails, the movie telegraphs it constantly) to live in a pretty little North Carolina coastal town where it is conveniently always the golden hour. It’s not long before she starts making goo-goo eyes at Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), and they fall blandly in love. But Katie’s incredibly obvious past is catching up with her in the form of Kevin (David Lyons), an obsessed cop. Dun dun dun! Will it all work out for the lovebirds? Do you even have to ask?
Sound familiar? If it is, that’s probably because you’ve seen “Sleeping With the Enemy,” the 1991 Julia Roberts vehicle with the exact same plot. The only difference between the two is where the movies place their focus: “Enemy” focuses more on the thriller elements to greater effect, while “Safe Haven” zeroes in on the gooey, boring romance and awkwardly throws the thriller plot to the sidelines, making it even less plausible and even more obvious that the film is far more interested in making money than telling a story.
And that’s the main problem here: the movie’s just plain dull. Pretty much nothing of great significance happens between the first 5 minutes and the last 20, meaning you sit through endless montages scored to twee singer-songwriter pop, horrible forced dialogue about second chances and memories and other sappy bulls—t, numerous distracting plot holes and characters who have no development beyond their wardrobe and lazily written backstories. Even those hoping for a “so bad it’s good” camp classic will be disappointed, as laugh-out-loud moments are somewhat lacking.
That dullness extends to the actors. For instance, Hough is embarrassingly terrible, incapable of conveying even the simplest of emotions. Even when she’s being threatened at gunpoint, she can’t show the slightest bit of fear, instead wearing an expression that says, “How’s my hair?” Duhamel isn’t as painful to endure, but he’s flat and never quite sells his “earnest single father with dead angelic wife” bit. It goes without saying that the two have no chemistry, just a series of elaborate poses and clichés straight from the Nicholas Sparks playbook.
Lyons is less dull, but still awful in that he turns his character (who’s already quite over-the-top) into a cartoonish villain. He turns on a dime from innocent to psychotic, with no indication of motivation or actual personality. There’s a hilarious scene where he lounges in an armchair with a silly scowl, evilly sipping a glass of whiskey while the score swells portentously. Of course, this is not to mention the numerous other scenes he storms about chugging alcohol, just so everyone can be absolutely sure that he’s an alcoholic.
The only decent actor in the movie is Mimi Kirkland as Alex’s daughter, who is genuinely charming and cute. If only the movie had been about her. Her on-screen brother, Noah Lomax, is perversely interesting to watch solely because he wears a facial expression that makes him look like Grumpy Cat for the whole movie, even when he’s supposed to be enthusiastic.
Not even the usually reliable Lasse Hallström’s direction can save this wreck. His style here is an ungainly mix of glossy, soft-focus over-romanticization that does a complete disservice to the dramatic elements, distracting shaky cam (between this and “The Impossible,” we’re ready to declare an embargo on shaky cam) and herky-jerky editing, which makes the script’s inability to pick a scene and develop it glaringly obvious.
The only real point of interest is the ending, where Sparks seemingly gives up and flings out a ludicrous and unintentionally creepy supernatural twist that will make your jaw drop in bewilderment at how damn awful it is. It’s supposed to be cuddly and heartwarming, but instead it just makes you question the sanity of one of the main characters, and it’s the final syrupy nail in the coffin for this latest Sparksian train wreck.
Speakeasy Grade: D-
Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality