It goes without saying that Safe Haven is the whitest thing offered up for public consumption in the three days since Mumford & Sons won the Grammy for Album of the Year. No matter the spite engendered by the all-consuming lameness of Nicholas Sparks’s world, often typified by endless beach scenes, muted past traumas, sad, vaguely damaged fashion models, and the pervasive, unquestioned acceptance of life after death, one must at least remark on the aesthetic and thematic consistency of the adaptations, the product of seven different directors and some dozen or so scripters, including Sparks himself. Two white heterosexual heartthrobs will build a lasting, bland romance and will have to band together to accept and dismiss the black clouds of their past, but the stakes will never rise high enough to rouse any conceivably reasonable offense. Indeed, Safe Haven would have made an accurate title for any Sparks film thus far.
In this case, the black clouds are seemingly of a murder perpetrated by Erin (Julianne Hough), who makes her escape from the suburbs of Boston to the idyllic seashore environs of Southport, North Carolina, intermittently tracked by an obsessed cop, Tierney (David Lyons). She takes the name Kelly, finds a nice cabin for sale, takes a job at the local surf-and-turf grill, and makes friendly with Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower with two kids who runs a small grocery and gas station. A few hesitant-flirty back-and-forths lead the way to a family beach date and a romantic one-on-one, stuck-in-the-rain date which opens them up to romantic sentiments dull enough to make Betty Boop go cold.
Things get hairy when Tierney is revealed to be Erin’s estranged, alcoholic husband, but it’s clear that director Lasse Hallström is more interested in the shock of the reveal than he is in building up the menace and savagery of Tierney’s character. There’s a similar disinterest in the community of Southport as individual characters, but even more disquieting is the leisurely way the essential emptiness of both the film and the lead characters is presented. There’s a great deal of importance and time given to taking photos in the film, but no character offers a discernable reason of true import past some unenthused sense of posterity, and the film echoes that feeling. In line with the rest of the Sparksian cinema, Safe Haven goes to considerable lengths to eliminate every scrap of evidence to suggest that the film was made by an individual with personal emotions, memories, and opinions.
Whatever her highly dubious talent, Hough cannot, by any standards, carry a film, and there’s little evidence here of the admirable comedic spark Duhamel utilized in the underrated Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. Their potent lack of chemistry, however, further feeds into the blankness the film exudes. Were there any real sense that these two might want to actually fuck one another for any reason other than their appearances, the ensuing passion would disrupt the film’s crucial insouciance. Even the film’s most active sequence—a climactic confrontation between Tierney and Erin—bucks any sense of genuine threat as Tierney is suddenly rendered more Batman villain than disgraced police officer.
Objective pleasance is Safe Haven‘s end game, an impossibility that suggests at least a certain twisted brand of ambition. This is no more evident than in the film’s final moments, when we are privy to the contents of the letter Alex’s late wife left for the next woman he fell in love with. The supposedly strong emotional bond that’s struck between Alex and Erin doesn’t mean anything at all, it seems, until the ghost of his dead wife also gives her blessing. It’s the triumph of the cordial over nuance, detail and style, and there’s the unshakeable, upsetting feeling that Hallström, like Erin, is merely filling a vacancy.