So devoid of smarts was the initial concept, it should come as little surprise that "Safe Haven" is a nightmare on wheels. The only real shocker is how well Julianne Hough comes off throughout - it's easily her finest performance - but the quicksand nature of the story beneath her feet would sabotage even the heartiest of acting efforts. Hough doesn’t stand a chance against shoddy pacing, horrific editing, and plot direction disastrous enough to make your toes curl. Even when compared against other films that have been adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels, “Safe Haven” is terrible.
We open with Katie (Hough) running around with a plastic bug, her image diced apart with a mess of dimply lit flash cuts. She's trying to escape from someone or something, eventually escaping onto a nearby bus, feverishly looking around with paranoia. Who is chasing her? The cops! The bus departs, leaving the fuzz in her wake. Katie disembarks in beautiful Southport, North Carolina, finds a job, and begins the slow process of piecing her life back together. As the film lumbers on, the audience is treated to flashbacks that detail what exactly went wrong, why she's on the run, and what it is that pursuing her throughout the nearly two-hour running time.
The only other story direction involves the go-hard Detective Tierney (David Lyons). He's obsessed with finding Katie, and his character development is handled with genius level dialogue such as "No one is innocent." Detective Tierney is working nights and weekends in order to bring our main character to justice. That's pretty much all we see of him, a fella tracking down leads, running roughshod over The Fourth Amendment and generally indicating he's the absolute worst sort of person. In one of the most hilarious scenes this side of "The Hangover," Detective Tierney attempts to track the path of the bus Katie boarded, using surveillance footage from the night of her exodus, and he starts asking questions about where all the busses go. It's an amazing thing to watch, this detective realizing that - why - busses go all over America. Katie could be anywhere! I suppose they cut out the part where Tierney was beamed down from an alternate galaxy that no one knows how basic travel works in, because everyone with a functioning frontal lobe realizes that once you leave one place, all other places are then open to your journey. Sigh.
Katie starts forming relationships in Southport, though she's initially reluctant because she might have to take flight at the slightest hint of danger. Still, this little duckling begins to fly again, and it’s not long before she’s soaring into the arms of a local widower named Alex (Josh Duhamel). As an audience, we're okay to root for these two crazy kids to succeed, because life has killed off Alex's spouse, leaving behind only rock-hard abs and a sensitive, giving man. Don't roll your eyes just yet, as even stupider moments are headed down the pike.
It slowly becomes clear why Detective Tierney is hunting Katie down in such an obsessive manner, and this informs the entire third act, completing the transformation of "Safe Haven" into a Lifetime Movie of the Week. Truly, there might have been a decent rom-com buried within if the entire "pursuit" angle had been excised, but we'll never know because everyone involved was too busy loading up the cheese truck to dump on "Safe Haven". No logical question is ever answered, and Katie lives in a world where you can get a job without ID, buy a house without ID, and where loved ones leave you completely alone if it serves the purpose of faux tension within the script. There are very few moments of "Safe Haven" that aren't dripping with melodrama, leaving an audience free to check out to think about their grocery list.
As the film reaches its crescendo, it becomes apparent that director Lasse Hallstrom will stop at nothing to grab your interest, even if that grabbing involves actively insulting your intelligence. As everything plays out in the exact way it would if you had ten minutes to write a screenplay, you start rooting for most of the characters to trip and hit their head. They do not do this, so feel free to skip this monster. Yes indeed, the opening scene of "Safe Haven" features Hough running with a plastic bag, but it's we who should have run, and the script that should have been placed into a plastic bag. And then thrown away. On fire. Into a bottomless pit.
When not pondering casters, Laremy writes books about film criticism. He's open to the idea of living in Southport.