I am not the target demographic. I am well aware of this. Yet I’d like to believe that I am a discerning enough critic that I can judge a film on its merits despite not being the intended audience, and as such, I went to see Safe Haven, the newest romantic drama based on the Nicholas Sparks work of the same name. It is not the first romantic drama that I have seen, nor will it be the last, and I will freely confess that there have been films of the genre that I have found profoundly moving and affecting.
This film, this hideous piece of treacly, diabetes-inducing hogshit, is not one of them.
Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallström (Dear John, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), is yet another in the seemingly endless line of Lifetime-Plus works based on Sparks novels, which as previously noted, are all basically the same. The settings may change, the more distinct plot details may vary, but the essential story structure is always the same. There is little about Safe Haven that strays from that path. Katie (Julianne Hough of Footloose fame) is on the run from her Boston home where she was involved in some sort of violent incident that is only hinted at through blurry flashbacks and dream sequences. She winds up in the bucolic town of Southport, North Carolina which is so achingly scenic as to seem artificial (note: it’s a real town, and charming enough, but with enough lens flare and yellow filtering it is made to look like God’s vacation spot). Working at the local convenience store is Alex (Josh Duhamel — Transformers, Transformers II: Now With More Racism, and Transformers III: Seriously, What The Fuck), the adorable widower with two precocious kids who lost his wife to The Cancer a few years back, and is slowly trying to find his place in the world and maybe, just maybe, find the right person to help fill the hole in his heart and I just vomited up something black and scary-looking because Jesus, seriously?
Anyway, despite Katie being anxious about meeting new people and putting down roots, she finds herself slowly becoming enamored of Southport and its denizens, including her quirky neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders) and the kindly restaurant owner who gives her a job whose name I forget because it so doesn’t matter. None of it matters, really, because the plot is so utterly predictable, so perfectly and almost clinically telegraphed, that within the first ten minutes the average ten year-old would be able to fill in the rest of the story. Safe Haven isn’t a movie, it’s a masterful collection of cliches so breathtakingly obvious and trite that it would give the Oxygen Network pause. I’m not even worried about spoiling most of the film, because if you can’t figure these things out then there’s a good chance you’re either not actually conscious, or so stupid that you couldn’t find your genitals if they were tied to your own hand.
The acting is resoundingly terrible, but none so much as the hysterically over-the-top performance of David Lyons as the dogged-yet-borderline psychotic cop who is trying to find her, sending out sinister APB’s and even breaking into houses to track her down. Lyons sweats and shouts and lurches through his performance, devouring his scenes relentlessly, substituting skill or subtlety for drunken enthusiasm. As for the leads? Well, Josh Duhamel raises and lowers his eyebrows and occasionally shifts his mouth from upward to downward, and somehow that’s called acting. Yet it’s downright Royal Shakespearean compared to the mumbling and snuffling and eyelash-batting of Hough, who prances her way through the film with a performance that is utterly bereft of personality. The only things of any resonance about Katie’s character is that her hair is very shiny and she has lovely dental work.
The thing is, Safe Haven is far from the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly not Footloose-bad. It’s weak, watered-down, bland, utterly predictable, pointlessly mawkish and emotionally manipulative, but still, I’ve seen worse. No, the more egregious crime is how unbelievably, staggeringly boring it is. Clocking in at just a hair under two hours, it’s an interminable slog, a film so gooey and syrupy in pacing and content that after a while you start to forget what the outside world is. You’ll begin to think that all there is is darkness and light and flashing pictures of smiley faces and frowny faces, as the people next to you haplessly trying to hold onto their own dignity in the face of the poor decisions that brought them to this place. It creates a sense of camaraderie, as if you’re all comrades-in-arms in the same tepid, endless vortex of saccharine, emotionally overwrought suckiness. Seeing Safe Haven in the theaters isn’t so much a filmgoing experience as much as it is the physical embodiment of the death of hope.
And yet? Even that isn’t actually the worst part. Not by a long shot. Its almost magical blandness isn’t the killer, nor is the acting which is wondrously both overwrought and dull. No, the film is a stupid, boring, contriving mess but it isn’t that much worse than the average generic Hollywood romance.
Until the final two minutes, when the whole goddamn thing takes a sharp right turn into Crazytown. That’s the point when I literally laughed, so loudly and in such an ugly fashion that I would have been mortified if not for the fact that I wasn’t even close to the only one to have that reaction. You see, all Nicholas Sparks films have a twist of some sort. Usually someone has cancer, or someone dies unexpectedly (or both). But no, not in Safe Haven. What it has is a motherfucker of a twist, one that I absolutely didn’t see coming, and the reason I didn’t see it coming is because it is 100% completely and totally unnecessary. It’s pointless, it contributes literally nothing to the story and has no narrative value whatsoever, virtually demanding that you ask why was it done in the first place. Which is why, because I simply don’t give a damn, and because I dearly hope that none of you are going to bother seeing this garbled trough of diseased clown urine dressed as a film, I’m going to spoil the fuck out of it.
Jo, played by Cobie Smulders, is actually the ghost of Alex’s dead wife. The whole time. This revelation comes when he gives Katie a letter that she had written to her husband’s future new love (back when she was dying) and it has a picture. I shit you not. Fucking ghosts, y’all. And that’s just it. There’s no reason for it. There was never any moment involving her watching over the family or anything like that. The revelation, the entire plot point, is completely purposeless. More so, it’s so crazily abrupt that it’s actually physically jolting. It’s basically “holy shit she’s a ghost, flashback, roll fucking credits.” It’s amazing in its almost mythic ineptness.
I am not in the target demographic for Safe Haven. The truth is, no one should be. There shouldn’t be anyone on this planet, in this universe, in this realm of existence that we call reality, that should see this movie and actually enjoy it. It’s drab, dull, and dumbfounding in its aimless and uninspired execution. The fact that it’s capped with such a completely idiotic twist is not just the rancid cherry on this very special dick-cheese sundae, but also what elevates the film from just run-of-the-mill dumb and boring to transcendentally, epically, extraordinarily horrible.