Counting Lasse Hallström’s Safe Haven, I’ve somehow managed (been bamboozled into is more accurate) to see the last four Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Beyond a raccoon that out-acted Miley Cyrus in The Last Song (2010), I remember little about those first three films with Sparks’ penchant for Southern-tinged, syrupy melodrama. I can unequivocally say that this won’t be the case with Safe Haven, a movie so unintentionally goofy — and even a bit strange — that it’s been branded into my memory.
Even odder is that all this silliness doesn’t kick in until the climax. Up to that point, we’ve got the usual Sparksian odes to small town Southern living and egregiously schmaltzy romance. We start by following Katie (Julianne Hough, Rock of Ages), a woman seemingly on the lam for attempted murder who dodges the law by hopping on a Greyhound and taking up residency in a tiny North Carolina coastal town. There, Katie reluctantly begins to acclimate herself, getting close to local shop owner, Alex (Josh Duhamel), and a guarded woman named Jo (Cobie Smulders, The Avengers). As the film unwinds, we learn that Katie’s murder attempt was actually in self-defense against her crazed, alcoholic, police-officer husband (David Lyons, Eat, Pray, Love) who’s searching desperately for her.
This goes almost exactly how you expect it will, as Katie learns to trust Alex and her evil, sweaty, beady-eyed husband is eventually knocked off. There’s nothing special about any of it, besides having a professional filmmaker in Hallström running things, even if he’s at the whim of a pretty lousy, clichéd script. That is, until we get to the finale, where Hallström, the script and some questionable decision-making all come to a head (if you’re the type to worry about spoilers in a Nicholas Sparks movie, this is where you should stop reading). Without delving into Hallström’s strange decisions, what he gives us is a climax that might just be trying to evoke Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear. You see, as the dust settles, we’re left with a tag scene where Katie finds out that her buddy Jo — and this seriously comes out of left field, and is only barely set up by the plot — is the ghost of Alex’s dead wife. We even get one of those Saw-style flashbacks, where the movie tells you how clever it’s been setting up this supernatural hullabaloo that has no business being in the movie in the first place.
The ending turns gooey Nicholas Sparks’ adaptation into — at least momentarily — toothless, bargain basement Almodóvar. It’s so hare-brained that I nearly stood up and applauded. If the rest of the film had been this loopy, we might have been onto something, but instead, all that remains is one weird exclamation point at the end of one cheesy romance. Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande