‘Safe Haven’ movie review: Nicholas Sparks adaptation with a bonkers finale

NOW STREAMING ON:

Safe Haven is the eighth Nicholas Sparks novel to be turned into a film, most of which have been spurned by the success of The Notebook in 2004; the writer has been churning out (at least) a book a year over the past 15 years, and Hollywood has followed in suit recently, with Nights in Rodanthe, Dear John, The Last Song, The Lucky One, and now Safe Haven coming in quick succession (up next: The Best of Me in 2014 and The Longest Ride the following year). 

These films all follow the same template, not just in story but in tone and style, and are all roughly of the same quality (save for The Notebook, which easily stands out as the best of the bunch). There’s nothing new in any one of them, but I appreciate the serious, adult take on a romance genre typically dominated by juvenile rom-coms, and I haven’t seriously disliked any of them.

Until this one. We know the Sparks formula: guy meets girl, they fall in love…and something tragic happens in the third act. You don’t naturally go into a romance expecting something bad to happen, but you do if you’re familiar with Sparks; this has the effect of creating some unintentional suspense to liven up the familiar proceedings. 

These movies typically work because they feature sympathetic characters and good-looking stars who have some real chemistry with each other: we want to see them together. Safe Haven is no different: Josh Duhamel (Transformers) is bland but likable as Alex Wheatley, a widowed father raising two young children in a small town on the North Carolinian coast; Julianne Hough is radiant as Erin Tierney, the woman with a troubled past who comes into his life. 

Erin’s past is where the movie falters. It’s framed as a mystery, the mystery being the film simply doesn’t give us all the details: we see her running away in the night, getting help from a neighbor, cutting and dying her hair, and fleeing on a bus, with a plainclothes police officer (David Lyons) in pursuit using some underhanded tactics.

We assume right from the start that the officer is her abusive husband. But the movie never comes out and tells us this, only to reveal tantalizing bits along the way. Arbitrarily hiding information from the audience in order to heighten mystery and add ‘twists’ to the plot is simply poor storytelling, and I keep seeing it in movie after movie (most recently, Redford’s The Company You Keep last week). Surely, the film must have a reason for telling the story like this. If the big reveal was simply what we had assumed to be the case all along, well…

I can’t fault Safe Haven too much for this – it’s a pretty standard technique, risible as it is, though I highly doubt the novel could get away with stealing our interest in such an obvious way. But I can fault the film for its shoddy pacing, schmaltzy presentation, and melodramatic nature. On top of everything else, this is the kind of movie that could be resolved in a heartbeat if the characters would only talk to each other. 

I expected better: the film was directed by Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules), who now (with Dear John) has two Sparks adaptations on his resumé. At the bottom of his resumé. 

And then the ending – oh my. This is where Safe Haven goes nuts. NUTS. Out of nowhere, an inexplicable ‘twist’ that seems like it was thrown in as an afterthought. The film could have ended five minutes earlier and no harm done, but what occurs during the final frames is so crazy, so poorly thought-out and poorly-realized a spoiler wouldn’t do it justice – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you what happens. 

At least the ending provides something memorable. The rest of Safe Haven is by-the-numbers Sparks, a little worse than most, which is disappointing given that the author actually served as a producer here for the first time. At least the leads are pleasant to look at.

Safe Haven

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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