This review completely spoils Safe Haven. Like, as soon as the first paragraph. You've been warned.
A Nicholas Sparks movie needs three things: a beach, a babe, and a bro. Safe Haven delivers the Holy Trinit - a sacrament that guarantees a hot and heavy date nigh - and then drives the whole movie off a bridge, like Sparks has gotten so bored with his seaside weepies that he shrugged and said, “Screw it, let's throw in a ghost.”
His latest panty-dropper starts bloody, as though Sparks accidentally stapled a spec script for SVU to his newest scribbles when he sent them off to his agent. Erin (Julianne Hough), her heaving chest smeared in gore, runs barefoot through the streets wailing, “What have I done?” A quick haircut and bleach job later, she's fleeing Boston - and the abusive husband she just stabbed - on a bus headed south. As soon as she crosses the Mason-Dixon line, director Lasse Hallström, an official Sparks sellout, cuts to golden sunshine and country music so the audience can sigh with relief that they didn't buy a ticket to the wrong movie.
On her tail is Officer Tierney (David Lyons), and to make sure we stay sympathetic to our killer heroine and not, you know, the law, Safe Haven makes him a cross between Bad Lieutenant and the T-1000. (Christopher Dorner's family should hire Hallström to direct his heroic biopic.) Tierney swills vodka from a water bottle, sleeps overnight at the crime scene, breaks into old ladies' houses, nearly runs over a teenager and reeks booze sweat like the second coming of Charles Bukowski. And those are the least of his crimes. Eventually, we're given a reason for his insanity. Alas, it's too late - we've already wasted two acts thinking the filmmakers must be a pack of mouth-breathing morons.
Our romance starts when Erin impulsively gets off the bus in a coastal North Carolina hamlet, renames herself Katie and buys a coffee from widowed dad Alex (Josh Duhamel), who runs the corner store. She charms his moppet daughter (Mimi Kirkland), he gives her a used bicycle, and then they go to the beach and check out each other's abs. Their love story has a mellow eas - as neither of them has much of a personality, we're just watching two swell people decide to bone. It almost feels voyeuristic as Duhamel has the snub-nosed Archie Comics good looks of Hough's real-life boyfriend Ryan Seacrest. Squint and imagine him showered, and it's almost like you're spying on her real life.
Though she's meant to be a battered wife, after their first few meetings, Katie is as trusting as a puppy. For someone who's prone to nightmares, she makes the ill-considered choice to rent a secluded cabin in the woods. Her reluctance to open up to her only neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders of The Avengers) doesn't seem like the result of years of abuse, but just the result of hiding from the cop - and of the fact that Jo, a sad sack like herself, is a kind of a lonely creepster who wasn't lucky enough to fall in insta-love with a local hunk. Instead, she spends her time peeking into people's windows and sighing Single White Female things to her sole friend like, “You deserve this.”
Safe Haven shamelessly riffs off of Sparks' biggest hit, The Notebook. There's a romantic canoe ride, a sudden rainstorm, a quirky first slow dance and lots of shots of the dude hoisting the girl in the air. But it lacks The Notebook's angry heat. In that, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were violently, viciously in love - watch it again (or for the first time if you're going to pretend you haven't seen it) and count the number of times McAdams slaps him in the face.
Here, when Duhamel discovers that Hough is wanted for murder, he's merely peevish, as if his barista gave him the wrong latte. Their fumbled big moments are a waste of two slightly-better-than-average screen stars, which is a different thing than calling them serious actors. Duhamel's spent his career as fifth banana in big franchises and deserves more than to spend his life as Mr. Fergalicious. As for Hough, a former hoofer on Dancing With the Stars, she'd be the biggest name in Hollywood if she could get time-traveled back to 1935, an era when we expected our stars to have skills. Straight-forward and approachable, she makes for a sturdier heroine than the rest of Sparks' doomed beauties. Hough even looks like she could drink a beer, which in this country is a prerequisite for running for president.
Add in the humble setting and the approximately 8,000 American flags Hallström, a Swede, sneaks into the background (he even sets the climax during the frigging Fourth of July) and Safe Haven feels downright blue collar. That's weirdly rare in romance movies. Most Hollywood love stories make the heroine teeter around in spike heels and pencil skirts doing a very glamorous job that no one can explain. Not only is the love itself totally unattainable, so is the real estate. There are no six-figure lofts in Safe Haven, and there's a lesson in there for filmmakers: audiences don't love a Nicholas Sparks movie because they're stupid. They love it because it's real, or at least real enough that they can see a reflection of themselves in it if they just had the courage to buy that bus ticket or smile at that stranger.
And then in the last five minutes, all of that realistic romance gets suffocated Fatty Arbuckle-style. In the looniest twist in Sparks' oeuvre - which is saying a lot for a guy who specializes in secret letters and convenient cancer - after Katie and Alex's last big kiss, she reads a note his dead wife wrote before she croaked and realizes that her clingy friend Jo is more than just the miserablist foil for what happens if you move to the South and don't dye your hair blonde. Jo is—gasp!—the ghost of Alex's dead wife. And she, like, totally supports them falling in love. In flashbacks, Katie realizes that all those times she walked through the woods with her new weird friend, she was actually alone and rambling to herself.
This raises a couple questions: Is Katie insane? Did Ghost Jo know she was going to hook up with her ex from the beginning? Is she a psychic ghost? When Ghost Jo left town and hinted she was moving to Europe, is Europe Heaven? If Europe is Heaven, does that mean that Belinda Carlisle was right when she said Heaven is a place on Earth? Will Nicholas Sparks pull an L. Ron Hubbard and reveal that his novels are actually the precursor texts to a new religion? Hey girl, I'd totally read The Gospel According to Ryan Gosling. But even among Sparks' questionable canon, Safe Haven is a minor text.