By Sean Czarnecki, Daily Film Editor
Published February 18, 2013
As lifeless as it gets, “Safe Haven” is a melodrama sloshed to the grimy brim with schmaltz. It leaves you pining for something — anything — real, but look all you want, you won’t find the tiniest pulse in this bland Nicholas Sparks big-screen adaptation. It’s an agonizing, sadistic way to spend a date.
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A woman, whose real name is Erin Tierney (Julianne Hough, “Rock of Ages”), arrives in Southport, N.C., hoping to escape her past. The good people of the town welcome her into their lives, including, and especially, widower Alex (Josh Duhamel, “Movie 43”), with whom she falls in love. Unfortunately, Erin’s history threatens to quash their blossoming relationship.
Despite a story full of conflict, Hough does little to provoke any empathy from the audience. An emotional core is nowhere to be found in Hough’s performance. She strives for a girl-next-door vibe, but the attempt amounts to the unconvincing, reprehensible charm of a pretty little liar. The same could be said of Duhamel. As a father, however, he conveys (to a small extent) a sense of desperation: The frustrated gentleness with which he asks his son to be in a picture with him almost makes him believable, even likeable.
Unfortunately, the nice-guy-meets-a-nice-girl part of his character is gag-worthy. It’s the same “you hang up first” joke you see on sitcoms all too often, but without the self-aware irony — just lovers trying to be cutesy, clueless to how annoying they are. In short, “Safe Haven” has but a quantum of success in portraying giddy youth. There’s more life to Ken and Barbie than this cloying melodrama.
That said, the fault mostly lies with its superficial script, which substitutes believable character development for half-baked emotional depth. Erin suffered through an alcoholic, abusive relationship; Alex loses his childhood sweetheart, but their problems are hardly given their due respect. While “Safe Haven” isn’t meant to be commentary but just something fun, the ankle-deep character writing nonetheless fails to engage its audience. And the dialogue: so tacky and stilted, one wishes “Safe Haven” were a silent film instead. Near the movie’s finale, Jo (Cobie Smulders, TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”), Erin’s best friend in Southport, proclaims the day simply “incandescent.” Who the hell says that?
The story’s emotional shallowness is made still worse by its cock-eyed plot twists. A supernatural element is tossed into the mix to little effect, except for the presumable purpose of sewing up the plot’s loose ends. By doing so, the tremendous suffering of both characters is trivialized, robbed of its trauma — whose full weight is, again, terribly absent in the first place. The result of the cheap addition of supernaturalism? A complete lack of authenticity. The plot twists are inane, their stupidity exceeding excusability; “Safe Haven” is offensively stupid.
Nothing yet has been mentioned of the stock music riddled throughout the film or the severe incompetence of editor Andrew Mondshein (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green”) and director Lasse Hallström’s (“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”). For there are great romance movies out there. Take “Amour,” recently released in the Michigan Theater, or even “Silver Linings Playbook.” Watch something that’ll make you laugh and cry, not slap yourself via facepalm.
The worst thing a film can do is make you feel like it wasted your time. It’d be wrong to say “Safe Haven” did that. No, it damn near brings your pulse to a syrupy stop with boredom. It drawls with the urgency of a filibuster, all but wasting its (and your) time. More time is spent convincing us how cute Alex and Erin are together than crafting a story built on genuine people of genuine problems. It’s an insufferable experience. You might as well stay home and munch on stale bread.