Silver Screen: Safe Haven *1/2
In case you weren’t aware, author Nicholas Sparks is a huge douchebag. I say this not as someone who has begrudgingly sat through much of his film oeuvre, which includes such programmatic weepies as Nights in Rodanthe, The Lucky One, The Last Song, and A Walk to Remember, but because Sparks himself provides evidence.
Sparks, who writes serviceable but predictable mainstream romances, infamously told a reporter from USA Today, “There are no authors in my genre. No one is doing what I do,” in the same interview that he compared himself to the Greek tragedians who were the architects of Western literature. And it wasn’t a vague comparison. “I write in a genre that is not defined by me,” Sparks said, presumably gazing dreamily at a painting of himself looking at his own refection in a mirror. “The examples were not set out by me. They were set out two-thousand years ago by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were called the Greek tragedies.”
It’s essential to keep these lofty boasts in mind while watching Safe Haven, Sparks latest contribution to the Western canon, which is only distinguishable from a well-polished Lifetime original movie by a loopy, unintentionally hilarious final twist that’s more suited to a flailing daytime soap.
These are the primary features of a Nicholas Sparks story: Cancer, beaches, fire, precocious children. Only the healing power of love can help the characters overcome fire/cancer to enjoy the beaches/precocious children.
In this case, the father of the precocious children who live on the beach is Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower whose wife died of cancer. (Look out for the inevitable fire, Alex!) He runs a convenience store in a North Carolina tourist trap and spends his days raising his sad, obstinate son and infuriatingly bubbly daughter.
Like many a Sparks protagonist, Alex is too wounded to consider loving again-- that is, until the perfect person comes along. In this case, that person is Katie (Julianne Hough), a pint-sized waitress who’s a bit of a recluse herself. She’s harboring a dark secret, one she won’t even tell to the pushy neighbor (Cobie Smulders) who stops by randomly to chat and encourage her to meet new people.
Katie’s dark secret: She’s being followed by her creepy, drunkard ex-husband (David Lyons), an unhinged policeman she stabbed one night while defending herself from another round of his abuse.
It’s pretty standard Sparks fare, directed by his Dear John collaborator Lasse Hallström. Hallström is notable for making a pair of well-respected indie flicks (My Life as a Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) before segueing into a career making the most boring movies of all time (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News, An Unfinished Life). His bland, slow-paced approach works reasonably well with Sparks’s stories, which are essentially long walks to a familiar location.
But while Hallström’s Dear John had the benefit of sex appeal thanks to stars Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum, Safe Haven is not similarly blessed. Duhamel is serviceable, mostly through practice, as his entire film career has pretty much consisted of either fighting Transformers or falling in love in unlikeable movies (When in Rome, Life as We Know It, New Year’s Eve). He holds up his end of the smoldering widower bargain, but costar Hough is not up to the challenge. The reality-TV star is certainly pretty, but she’s dancer-pretty, with soft, rounded features that look great from far away but have no real expressiveness up close. She has two faces, smiling and not smiling, and seems to find the second face troublesome. Her flat delivery renders most of her scenes inert, which is problematic given that she has the most screen time. While she’s blandly likable in the easygoing romantic scenes, she’s unable to inject any credibility when the going gets melodramatic.
Then there’s the matter of Safe Haven’s ending. After the ex-husband has been dealt with-- unfortunately he is not crushed by a falling treehouse, which happens to a character in The Lucky One-- and the movie begins to wind toward its conclusion, I started to wonder, “Hey, why in the hell was Cobie Smulders around in the first place, and how come her subplot seems utterly unresolved?” The answer comes in the form of a last-minute twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan slap his forehead. It’s almost as if Sparks is spitefully responding to his critics, “Hey, if you guys think my stuff is so predictable, predict this!”
It’s just as Aeschylus would want it.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.