Safe Haven (Lasse Hallstrom, 2013)
Category: IT’S SPARKS WE’RE BACK WHO’S EXCITED. This is the eighth cinematic adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. I have watched the previous seven films for this temporarily-not-defunct blog. You’re here for one of two reasons: either I have personally opened this website for you on your computer, or you want to know just how awful this movie is. In due time.
My familiarity with this issue: Let’s brush up on our Sparks, shall we? He’s a 47-year-old novelist who lives in North Carolina with his wife and five children. (Is it wrong that I kind of wish he were divorced? It’d be like finding out that The Rock was a coward in real life.) Sparks specializes in manipulative, heavy-handed romantic dramas, often involving characters finding love, losing love, having cancer or various other diseases, and/or dying. Some of his characters are young (A Walk to Remember, the good parts of The Notebook), some are old (the bad parts of The Notebook) and some look like Kevin Costner (Message in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe), but all of them, sooner or later, share the belief that the universe is conspiring for them to meet their true love. Which is not a thing that happens.
Sparks’s books/films (and let’s note right here that I have never read any of his books, because life is too short, and so I’m relying on the films based on his books as a fair representation of the Sparks ethos, which I think it is) also feature a concerted effort to induce tears from the audience at the expense of realism or honesty. (Devotees of the blog know that I tend to get a bit annoyed at this fact.) Most importantly for our purposes here, all of his films, with the possible exception of The Notebook, feature their share of the sublimely boring and the ridiculous. In my last post, I cataloged the ridiculous aspects of each of the first seven films. If you're new to this, it's a good way for you to get up to speed without taking a week out of your lives to read them all.
Safe Haven was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, a second time Sparks-er (he also directed Dear John). Oscar-nominated for The Cider House Rules, it wasn’t until Dear John that he truly proved himself as the master of cinematic abortions. This is the fourth Hallstrom film to be profiled on TMS (My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and he also directed nearly all of ABBA’s music videos and he’s married to Lena Olin and OK I am done looking at Lasse Hallstrom’s Wikipedia page. The film stars Josh Duhamel, known to supermarket checkout line glossy magazine enthusiasts as Fergie's husband, and Julianne Hough, who apparently dates Ryan Seacrest and apparently starred in Rock of Ages and the remake of Footloose. I say “apparently” to all of that because honestly who is this person.
My viewing party of GFOTB Abby Casey and FOTB Lindsay Filardo was joined by about seven other people in an enormous theater. (To be fair, it was a Tuesday night showing.) I'm not going to say that the crowd was unenthused, but let’s just say no one seemed to mind the three of us whispering snark for the entire duration of the film.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “When a mysterious young woman named Katie appears in the small North Carolina town of Southport, her sudden arrival raises questions about her past. Beautiful yet self-effacing, Katie seems determined to avoid forming personal ties until a series of events draws her into two reluctant relationships: one with Alex, a widowed store owner with a kind heart and two young children; and another with her plainspoken single neighbor, Jo. Despite her reservations, Katie slowly begins to let down her guard, putting down roots in the close-knit community and becoming increasingly attached to Alex and his family. But even as Katie begins to fall in love, she struggles with the dark secret that still haunts and terrifies her…”
On IMDb it says this plot summary (which I abridged, if you can believe it) was written by “Nicholas Sparks,” which I’m assuming is just the IMDb username of some Sparks superfan. But what if Nicholas Sparks actually spent his days writing (flattering) plot summaries for his movies on IMDb under his own name? I’m not willing to rule out this possibility.
What I thought about the movie/How I related to the movie: I’ll say this: it is not the most objectionable Sparks movie I’ve seen. I mean, that’s a really high bar to clear, and it didn’t clear it. But it was extremely boring. Most of the time, I was very bored, and the few ridiculous parts that spiced up the boredom really weren’t so ridiculous as to be that entertaining. But I had to sit through it, so you have to sit through me telling you about it now. Don’t close this tab.
The film opens with a woman on the run; in grainy flashback footage, we see that she has killed or injured some man in what is implied to be a domestic dispute. Dyeing her hair and pulling her hood low like the girl with the dragon tattoo, she’s just barely able to elude a cop on her trail and hop a bus from Boston down the East Coast. Some time later, the bus makes a pit stop in Southport, a small town on the North Carolina coast, full of boats and such (SPARKS THEME: SMALL COASTAL TOWNS IN NORTH CAROLINA FULL OF BOATS AND SUCH), and she thinks to herself, “I might as well settle down in a Nicholas Sparks movie.” So she stays there. (Lindsay: “She could have wandered further from the bus route, but OK fine.”)
This being a Sparks film, “Katie” (a name we are given to assume is an alias) has no trouble finding a job and a rickety house in the middle of the woods, because towns like these are the best places in the world, full of people who don’t judge you for your past mistakes and don’t check your driver’s license when you apply for a job or rent a house. (I need to get a ruling on this from Taste My Sad’s resident coastal Carolina residents, FsOTB Charles Temple and Chrisi Gaskill. Tell me Ocracoke would be less welcoming to a potential murderer than Southport.)
Another feature of this town is the Young Hot Widower With Two Kids, aka Duhamel, aka Bill Hader on steroids. He owns a little general store with his elderly uncle (who spoke maybe twice; I expected him to be the wise older guy who urges Duhamel to forget about his dead wife and get crackalackin’ with Fake Katie). I feel as though Duhamel is pretty ready to move on from his dead wife from the get-go, or maybe it’s just that not very many hot women wander into this sleepy little town, but every time Fake Katie enters his store he’s practically drooling over her. At one point, he’s checking her out (both in the “she’s buying groceries” sense and the “dat assssssss” sense) and, noticing that she’s buying rice, says, “Basmati: the king of rices!” Which I don’t even know what to do with right now.
This leads me to my next point. For the first half hour or so of this movie, it is the most boring thing I have ever seen. The dialogue is flat, uninteresting, banal, any other synonym for "boring" that you'd like to apply here, go for it. There is almost no energy at all to any of the proceedings, a fact that I blame this partially on the script and partially on Julianne Hough, who’s trying to go for “quiet girl with a mysterious past,” but can only manage “bored bored oh my God so bored.” It’s not helped by the introduction of Cobie Smulders (aka that girl from How I Met Your Mother) as Fake Katie’s neighbor in the woods. Smulders seems nice enough, but, considering the fact that her character has nothing to do except try to make friends with a girl who clearly doesn’t want to have any friends because she’s too busy being boring, ends up being even more boring as a result. It’s a real snoozer, I’m tellin’ ya.
Furthermore, there is no dramatic tension in this part of the movie because we know that they’re going to fall in love before he finds out about her past and before the cop from Boston tracks her down. There’s no other way for this movie to play out. So never mind the why and wherefore of them doing that. It happens. She gets to know his kids, they all go to the beach together, they go on a sexy canoeing date (SPARKS THEME: BOATS), it rains (SPARKS/T-SWIFT THEME: RAIN), they pull the boat out of the water in the rain (at this point I yelled “WHY DIDN’T YOU WRITE ME”), they dance in an abandoned store, they kiss, they do the do. Every Sparks sex scene is filmed the same, generic PG-13 way, and this film is no different. Sublimely boring.
Meanwhile in Boston, we learn more about the cop who was on Fake Katie’s tail. He’s obsessing over her, checking the surveillance footage from the (presumably huge) bus depot (or as Lindsay says, “clicking around arbitrarily on a computer for 40 seconds until he finds her”) to confirm that she got on a bus bound for Atlanta, and harassing this elderly lady who secretly helped FK escape. Then, using a computer program apparently called PhotoComposite 7.12.9 (say what you will about this guy, but at least he keeps up with his software updates), he
PhotoComposites blonde hair onto the previously redheaded FK, and sends out a
wanted (for first degree murder) poster to every police station in America. (Lindsay:
“Wanted posters! In 2013!”)
We get the feeling that something is off about this cop. His partner asks him about some other case, some guy who was present at a crime scene but who the cops think is innocent, and the cop (whose name I don’t think is mentioned more than once in the movie, and I’m not gonna bother to look it up) snarls, “No one’s innocent.” He means maybe the guy saw something and didn’t tell the cops, but COPS SHOULDN’T SAY THINGS LIKE THAT. WHAT. No one’s innocent! Does this man drive around all day and arrest everyone because they probably have unpaid parking tickets? I don't think normal cops act like this.
(SPOILER ALERT UGH WHY AM I EVEN TYPING THIS WHO CARES) And so the first twist is revealed (which was pre-called by Abby, and I guess Lindsay too, but she read all the spoilers for the movie before seeing it, which was a shocking revelation): it turns out the cop is so monomaniacal about Fake Katie because HE’S HER HUSBAND, and an abusive drunk one to boot. They show the flashback in full: she gets him dinner, he’s drunk, he breaks the wine bottle, he beats her up, there’s a knife on the table, oh yes oh yes oh yes they both oh yes they both oh yes they both reached for the knife the knife the knife etc., she stabs him and bounces outta there. They’re very careful to show her not doing anything at all to provoke him. Not that there’s anything that a woman can do to provoke someone into beating them up, but still, it’s super clear that the movie wants us to get rid of all of our doubts and suspicions about this girl now and support her 100%. Before this scene, we didn’t know the full story, and we weren’t completely sure if we should be rooting for her to avoid her comeuppance. But now we know the uppance that might come isn’t really fair, and the movie is thus relieved of any potential moral complexity.
Which leads me to another point: why did she run? Yes, he’s a cop, but it’s clear to everyone (including the police chief, who instantly fires him when he realizes that Drunky McGee sent out the wanted poster) that he’s a drunk. FOTB Allie Hagan also points out that, as he choked her, she would have marks on her neck and all that. I guess it’s scary when you think you’ve just killed someone, but it was pretty clearly in self-defense. She could’ve easily gone to the cops or called an abuse hotline or some such. But then there’s no movie.
Meanwhile, Duhamel, who’s friends with the Southport police chief, notices the wanted poster in the station. He loudly confronts FK about it in public, which I might not necessarily do if I discovered the girl I loved was possibly a murderer. In her own defense, she makes some vague reference to the difficulty of being in a bad relationship, but leaves out the drunken abuse, for some reason. And that reason is so that he'd get mad and storm off, she'd decide it’s time to skip town, but he'd almost instantly forgive her for being a possible murderer, and they'd make up, cementing their bond, and vow to fight this thing together. And lo, all that shit did in fact come to pass. We're flying now.
Disgraced, newly unemployed, and half in the bag, the Psycho Cop breaks into the old lady’s home and finds a phone message from FK, with the caller ID revealing exactly where she is. *82 that shit, girl! (UPDATE: I just read that *82 only works with cell phones, and she called the old lady from the landline at the restaurant where she works. But I’m leaving it in because this is my blog.) So he proceeds to drunk-drive from Boston to North Carolina, managing to avoid cackling maniacally and twirling his mustache as he does it.
Psycho Cop arrives in time for the 4th of July parade, and we quickly learn that we can add “not very respectful of our nation’s birthday” to his list of faults. This is one of the crazier parts of the movie: he shows up at this parade, stumbles around, spills “water” (vodka) from his water bottle all over the place, and physically harasses several people while trying to find FK. His investigate tactic of choice? Grabbing blondes from behind and spinning them around to see their faces, then roughly discarding them when it turns out not to be her. Some cop! It is nearly inconceivable that none of the cops in this town are alerted to this drunken fool's potentially dangerous behavior before he wreaks his damage. But then again, you have to assume these cops don't adhere to the "No one's innocent" school of police work.
Finally, he finds her, alone with Duhamel’s daughter in his store (which, it should be noted, features a second floor full of things that belonged to his late wife). Abby predicted that Psycho Cop would burn the place down, and when Hallstrom establishes the shot of the store by prominently featuring the adjoining gas station, I knew she was right. Duhamel, busy setting off fireworks with the lads, arrives just in time to save the little girl from the burning store, and then watches as Fake Katie (oh by the way her real name is Erin, in case you care) and Psycho Cop repeat their earlier fight. Except this time, the cop's got a gun instead of a knife! But he's so drunk that he manages to lose it in the struggle, and FK ups her record to 2-0 by shooting him in the face, an incident that causes no blood to be spilled. None! Maybe all the vodka all over his face instantly cauterized the wound.
So now comes the big twist, a twist that literally made me LOL in the theater: despite the store burning down, a box of letters (SPARKS THEME: LETTERS) from the late wife. Earlier we saw a few of these letters, addressed to the son “on his 18th birthday” and the daughter “on her graduation day,” etc. Duhamel brings one to Non-Fake Erin, which is simply addressed “For Her.” It’s all about how happy the wife is that Duhamel has met someone new and moved on and all that. Nice stuff.
Then we see the picture that the wife has enclosed of herself: IT’S COBIE SMULDERS. She was a ghost the whole goddamn time, supposedly pushing Fake Katie along and helping her to fall in love with this single, attractive, totally DTF man. I’d been complaining for the entire film about what a dumb, one-dimensional character she was. Turns out she was zero-dimensional. Smulders narrates the letter (SPARKS THEME: SAPPY NARRATION OF A LETTER), overhead shot of boats on the water (SPARKS THEME: WHAT I JUST SAID), end of film. We made it.
How I felt after the movie ended: Safe Haven seriously challenges Message in a Bottle for the title of “most boring Sparks film.” I think this one might win: Message was made in 1999, which allows me the fun of laughing at all the weird late-‘90s idiosyncrasies, like Robin Wright Penn’s character working at a newspaper and not getting laid off.
So, as we had to expect, the eighth Sparks film is just more of the same, except with most of the crazy sucked out. The characters are bland, the actors are attractive but basic-looking, it's all just beige. I’m kind of bummed I brought the blog out of retirement for it.
BUT WAIT: according to Wikipedia, an adaptation of a Sparks novel called The Choice will be released on March 12, 2013. That’s odd, considering I have heard nothing about this film, and IMDb doesn’t have any info on it. So that’s probably wrong. Other adaptations may or may not be in the works, depending on what you read. And who knows, I might decide to start writing this semi-regularly again. Taste My Uncertainty.