I Rewatched 'Safe Haven' to Figure Out Why Nicholas Sparks Sucks so Bad
If a love story like the one depicted in the film happened to me, I’d consider it a legitimate nightmare.
Photo via Relativity Media
Welcome to One More Time, the column where writers revisit and review the movies they walked out of in theaters.
It takes a lot for me to walk out of a movie. Especially when it comes to badly written romance flicks, which I consider extremely my shit.
I have no shame in admitting that some of my favorite romantic movies are the ones most universally panned, like The Wedding Planner, Simply Irresistible, Because I Said So, Failure to Launch, and Grease 2. Walking into the theater to watch 2013’s Safe Haven, I was mentally prepared for a low quality film, because duh. In my mind, it was to be the type of garbage I have grown to love. Corny, predictable, and unrealistic, but still somehow appealing to me. I guess because, deep inside of me, there’s a secretly hopeful and romantic woman who wants a wildly idyllic love story, despite being socially conditioned to suppress those feelings.
There was once a time when romantic films actually had box office success, and didn’t require one of the romancers to be in a superhero costume to get a major studio’s attention. The mid-90s to early 2000s gave us some of the highest grossing romantic movies of all time, such as My Best Friend's Wedding, As Good As it Gets, Runaway Bride, There’s Something About Mary, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. For a while, the popularity of romantic movies (particularly rom-coms) waned, in large part because films made “for women” are taken less seriously. A ridiculous love story about an impossible meetcute is viewed as tired and cliche, while even more ridiculous stories about men continuing to survive things exploding right next to them continue to be huge successes.
Anger over this double standard is part of the reason I paid for a ticket to see Safe Haven in the first place. I wanted to support a genre I love.
My expectation that it might be likable garbage was so, so wrong. Safe Haven turned out to be the bad kind of awful, rather than the good awful I crave. I can’t remember how far I made it into the movie, but I do remember that I sat through enough that I couldn’t get a refund at the box office. But even then, I couldn’t bring myself to go back inside and power through.
The movie is based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. If you’re not familiar with the man’s literary canon, you’re at least probably familiar with some of the movie adaptations of his work, like A Walk to Remember and The Notebook (the latter of which led to some of my first erotic dreams, which involved Ryan Gosling licking ice cream off my face.) Everything he writes is an over the top, emotionally manipulative story where someone has to die or experience the death of a loved one. Sparks has made a name for himself as a romance writer, but his version of romance is quite old school. You’ll never see a female lead as a feminist hero, or a male lead as someone who can easily talk about his feelings. What you will see is disapproving parents, surprise terminal illnesses, and/or someone who just served time in the military. Surprisingly enough though, Safe Haven is somewhat of an exception to this.
Starring Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel, Safe Haven is about a woman on the run who ends up in a small southern town, where she falls in love with the only man around her age who lives there. Of course, he is a recently widowed single dad. Because, for some reason, romance writers have this idea that women fantasize about dating a hot guy with a dead wife, i.e. Sleepless in Seattle, Love Happens, and the more recent How to Be Single.
The film is odd in that it feels like a corny romance drama filled with all the typical tropes like kissing in the rain, but will randomly turn into a poorly executed thriller during the scenes where a Boston cop is on the hunt for Hough’s character, Katie.
On my first viewing, I walked out without knowing why the cop was searching for Katie. There had been a few scenes implying that she was wanted for murder, but no specifics were given.
Turns out the cop is her ex-husband, who is an abusive drunk who falsely claims she's wanted for murder in the hope it would make it easier to track her down. Being suspected of murder briefly puts some strain on the relationship between Katie and Duhamel’s character, Alex, but eventually Alex comes to believe her and convinces her to stay in the crappy little beach town they’re in (she was planning on running away again).
But then the movie gets really wild. Her ex-husband finds her and sets Alex’s store on fire, almost killing his daughter who is trapped on the second floor. Katie ends up fighting the ex-husband over his gun, and eventually manages to shoot him in the face.
And then it gets even more bonkers. We find out that this random character played by Cobie Smulders who’d befriended Katie is actually A GHOST. Specifically, she is the ghost of Josh Duhamel’s dead wife. We don’t find this out until the very last few minutes of the film, where it’s revealed that the dead wife left a letter for the new woman in Alex’s life. Katie reads it, and a flashback of Cobie writing it appears, as well as a framed photo of her and the kids. I don’t think Katie ever figures it out either, as if this is some juicy secret only we, the audience, should know about? I have no clue.
Basically, I had the right instinct to walk out the first time. Like almost everything else Sparks does, Safe Haven is nothing more than weird small town America porn, demonizing big cities while glorifying little pockets of the country that are devoid of anyone who isn’t white, straight, or Christian. Boston is the bad place where drunk, abusive, men live while small southern towns are havens, where the non-violent hot single dads haunted by their ex-wives live.
The main characters themselves are completely flat, not even close to being interesting or worth rooting for. Which is hard to do considering the main character is a victim of domestic violence, who you inherently want to root for, but she has no personality outside of that. Ditto Alex, who is completely devoid of charm.
At the end of this film, I didn’t find myself secretly hoping I might have a similar love story one day, which to me is the mark of a successful romance flick. In fact, if anything in this film came true for me (moving to a small town, ghosts, shooting someone in the face), I’d consider it a legitimate nightmare.
Do I feel bad for shitting on Nicholas Sparks? Not at all. He’s a man who profits off of perpetuating antiquated ideas of romance. I wouldn't be massively upset if he never found success in the publishing or entertainment industry again. But sadly, that’s not the world we live in. He has a book coming out in October, and knowing how cruel the world is, it will almost certainly be made into a film.
It angers me because it’s men like him who ruined the romance genre, a genre largely targeted to straight women yet somehow also largely made by straight men. Despite the double standard I mentioned earlier, I completely understand why we got sick of mainstream romantic films. As the years went by, they relied more and more on the tropes they invented, and became stuck in time because of it. They no longer reflected the voice of the modern single woman, who now needs stories that are more diverse, more progressive, and more accurately reflect the true realities (and horrors) of dating. However, with men like Nicholas Sparks somehow being one of the leading voices in the romance genre for so long, this change didn’t happen. Instead, the guy doubled down and made the romance genre even more shallow and tone deaf.
What gives me hope is knowing that Safe Haven was made five years ago, and since then, better and more impactful romantic films have been made. Like Trainwreck, and the more recent Crazy Rich Asians. Here’s to continuing in that direction, and proving that the romance genre is not something to be shameful of loving.