Monday, February 11, 2013

Safe Haven

Unsafe To Watch, And Damaging To Your Well-Being

Julianne Hough as Katie in Lasse Hallstrom's romantic drama "Safe Haven".  Relativity Media

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, February 11, 2013

I haven't read the Nicholas Sparks book that Lasse Hallstrom's new film is adapted from, but "Safe Haven" as a film does more damage to young men and women -- those teens and 20-somethings who will see "Safe Haven" on Valentine's Day -- than some of the pornography you can find on the Internet.  "Safe Haven", which stars Julianne Hough ("Footloose", "Rock Of Ages") as Katie, a battered spouse who escapes her abusive husband in Boston to land in South Carolina, where she falls in love with Alex (Josh Duhamel), a local business owner, is one of the most corrosive and troubling films I've seen of late.

A Boston cop named Tierney (David Lyons) relentlessly pursues Katie, whom we're told is wanted for murder.  At the start we see a frantic, brunette-haired Katie running for her life, and throughout this disingenuous romantic drama we glimpse flashbacks of Katie's brutal treatment at the hands of a mostly unseen perpetrator.  (It took me all of five minutes into "Safe Haven" to guess who the abusive spouse was.) 

A Carolina local, Jo (Cobie Smulders), conveniently drops in and out of the narrative, coming in from nowhere as if an imaginary friend, befriending an understandably jittering and untrusting Katie, who for some reason decides to paint her wooden floor -- yellow, no less -- after putting her foot through it.  Everyone in "Safe Haven" seems to trip over, stumble, have trouble opening doors or fall into water during this very awkward and bizarre film.  A Hollywood romantic drama (or comedy) just isn't one, I suppose, without people tripping over cockroaches and hero sandwiches.  (Or something like that.)

"Safe Haven" has the talents of an adorable Mimi Kirkland as Alex's kid daughter Lexie but the film, which glories in its sunny, idyllic trappings to the hilt, is a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.  Katie suffers from PTSD but goes against her own best laid convictions about leaving South Carolina when several close calls with police occur.  "I love you," Alex declares to Katie.  This alone is enough to keep Katie from heading out of South Carolina on a ferry to her own safety.  If Katie was courageous enough to flee Boston and an abusive spouse, why does Katie suddenly go against her better judgment with a man she barely knows? 

I know what you're thinking: there would be no movie if she didn't.  Yet it begs the question: why does it have to be that way?  Which then begets this: there's no character or fortitude in Katie (or Alex, for that matter) if Katie stays in South Carolina, which makes her even more hollow and the story more pathetic and pointless.  What on earth is the point of "Safe Haven"?  The film's benign trappings make its subtext all the more dangerous, and disturbing. 

There's a lack of cohesion, emotion and chemistry between Mr. Duhamel and Ms. Hough, and not enough of a backbone in the story to make me (and perhaps you) even care about them.  We get contortions of Ms. Hough in one scene at her refrigerator in her remote home in the woods, contortions devised solely and gratuitously for ogling.  There's no other reason for the scene.  Ms. Hough's Katie's short shorts seem to get shorter as the film progresses.  Her cleavage begins to show more as the story wears on.  "Safe Haven" tries to mix a cold, blunt thriller with the sparkling, warm innocence it projects but the results are incongruous, and as a romance the film's emotions and feelings are false and desperately lacking.

Even more insulting: Alex, who says his wife has been lost or has left (implying at least to a dimwitted me that she has died), has a business -- he has money -- and is doing well.  It wouldn't be a huge sacrifice for Alex to join Katie on that ferry and leave South Carolina behind.  For all the selfish men out there, believe it or not there are actually men who leave their cities and countries to be with the woman they love.  "Safe Haven" makes Alex look toothless, and the screenwriters Dana Stevens (a female writer, not Dana Stevens the female film critic at Slate magazine) and Leslie Bohem (a male screenwriter) muddy and muddle the waters with lots of incoherence.  Did they write this screenplay after having a dirty weekend?  After smoking a lot of pot?  After binge drinking?  After reading Mr. Sparks' book backwards?

While some women make bad choices in real life relationships, Mr. Hallstrom's film suggests that a woman will automatically submit to the words "I love you" when they are spoken by a man -- in just the fashion Renee Zellweger's "Jerry Maguire" character says to Tom Cruise, "you had me at hello."  Worse yet, in "Safe Haven" Alex stands by, watching as Katie gets attacked by her abusive husband.  That's right -- Alex watches, and does not intervene to help Katie, the very woman he said he loved just a few scenes before.  You have to see this to literally believe it.  (No you don't.)

The sadder reality is that -- yes, you guessed it -- Katie gratefully hugs and kisses Alex after her ordeal ends.  It's an absolutely insane, painful scene and makes Katie look very foolish indeed.  Again, young women flocking to "Safe Haven" to see Mr. Duhamel topless will be fed a much more subtle and insidious idea and undercurrent: that a woman can't chart a course for herself without a man -- a handsome, dashing, muscular man at that.  Such audiences will also be fed the weird idea that a man who says "I love you" without really showing it is instantly to be trusted. 

"Safe Haven" does men a disservice too, implying that men aren't able to defend the women they love, and condone domestic violence against them.  Are there some men like this?  Yes, but I wish once, just once, films like this, particularly a film that emerges from the Abercrombie & Sparks line of entertainment would do something bold: be more dimensional than the cardboard Hallmark characters and atmosphere "Safe Haven" trumpets. 

If that's not enough, the ending of "Safe Haven" is one of the biggest, lamest cop-outs in movie history.  It is infuriating, cheap, and so ridiculous.  Such a hokey, lazy ending.  Incredibly manipulative, cynical and downright insulting.  I wanted to throw up but lacked the intelligence to do so.  My vomit would have been more dramatic than this awful, wretched film.  Such a manipulative, monstrous piece of excrement should never have seen the light of day, but sadly the exploitative, nonsensical "Safe Haven" will make much more money than "Middle Of Nowhere", a thoughtful, meditative and intelligent romance -- ever will.  Sadly and more telling: Ms. Hough was "extremely ill" at the LA. red carpet premiere for "Safe Haven".  Reportedly, Ms. Hough, 24, was "forced to walk" the carpet despite having a 102-degree fever.

"Are you kidding me?," I told an assistant publicist when asked for my reaction to "Safe Haven".  That was my reaction.  Ladies and gentlemen, please watch "An Affair To Remember" on Valentine's Day.  It's not all roses, but it is real.  You will see men and women with real emotion.  Having fun.  Thinking.  Loving.  Laughing.  Lamenting.  That is what fine romances are made of.

The tagline for "Safe Haven", yet another in a series of puzzling recent films from Mr. Hallstrom ("Salmon Fishing", "Dear John", the latter another Sparks adaptation) is, "you know it when you find it."  Well, I've found it alright: this movie stinks.  Kleenex need not be invited to your local theater if you see this painfully long, two-hour movie.  I don't know what I found more troubling: the film itself, or the sound of some audience members shedding tears at the end of this junk.

"Safe Haven" occupies a safe haven with "Identity Thief" as the year's two worst films thus far.

Also with: Noah Lomax, Irene Ziegler.

"Safe Haven" opens on Valentine's Day (Thursday) across the U.S. and Canada.  The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality.  The film's running time is one hour and 55 minutes.  

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