Exploiting our Archives: Control Nathan and Clint: Safe Haven (2013)
For the Valentine’s Day entry in Control Nathan and Clint, the feature where we give the thirty five living saints who pledge to the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast Patreon a choice between which of two impossibly awful-looking movies my co-host Clint and I must watch, then discuss, the options were Garry Marshall’s ensemble schlock fest Valentine’s Day or the the Nicholas Sparks adaptation Safe Haven.
You generous sadists chose the Nicholas Sparks adaptation Safe Haven, I suspect because of its reputation as the craziest, most out-there, most campily ridiculous film in the best-selling author’s career. What makes Safe Haven so bonkers? Well, let’s just say that it’s an incredibly boring romance. No shocker there, that’s pretty much Nicholas Sparks' brand: White and Boring. It’s also an incredibly boring mystery about a woman fleeing a dark past. That’s a little less expected. No, wait, what truly makes Safe Haven the Sparks adaptation for people who love bad movies, and also hate them, and have a complicated love/hate relationship with them is that in addition to being a brain-meltingly boring, white-bread romance and a Silk Stalkings level thriller it’s also one of the most ridiculous ghost stories I’ve ever seen.
That’s right: there’s a motherfucking ghost at the heart of the Nicholas Sparks adaptation Safe Haven. Now it is not unprecedented for a love story to prominently feature a ghost. If I remember correctly, there’s a ghost in the supernatural romance Ghost. I think she was played by Whoopi Goldberg. And there’s a whole field of entertainment devoted to last minute revelations that a seemingly alive character has been a ghost all along, perhaps most famously in The Sixth Sense (SPOILER!). But the ghost elements here are handled so clumsily that everything involving Cobie Smulders as Manic Pixie Ghost Girl Jo is unintentional comic gold.
Early in the film, for example, Jo, who only ever interacts with Erin Tierney, (Julianne Hough) reflects on how she has a bad habit of looking into people’s windows. That’s not an eccentricity, that’s some ghost shit! She might as well have followed it up by saying, “You know what else I like to do? Moan in a spooky fashion. Hover a little. Say ‘Boo!’ to children on Halloween. What are your hobbies?”
Knowing that Jo is a ghost trying to get her grieving, hunky husband laid invites all sorts of question the movie has no intention of answering. For example, when Jo’s widower Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel) makes sweet, passionate love to a tiny, gorgeous early twenty-something cheerleader type with perfect hair and perfect legs and perfect teeth and perfect everything (sorry, I once interviewed Hough in person at Wrigley Field around the time Footloose was released and was struck by how incredibly beautiful she was, even for an actress-dancer known primarily for being very beautiful) is Jo there masturbating furiously?
Is this some kind of sexual ghost fetish Jo is exploring? Does she get turned on watching her husband replace her with a younger, more gorgeous and newer beauty, both in bed and as the mother of her two children? Safe Haven would be so much more interesting if Jo’s motives were sexual and kinky instead of Christ-like in their selflessness.
Ah, but we are once again getting ahead of ourselves. Safe Haven begins, preposterously, as an “edgy” thriller following a mysterious, hoodie-clad woman played by pretty white lady Julianne Hough as she flees a bad, bloody scene on bus, her luscious, luscious mane of hair tragically but only momentarily obscured by a hoodie.
What is this woman running away from? Could it be (cue dramatic music) MURDER? Oh fuck no. This is Nicholas Sparks we’re talking about. He doesn’t do subtlety or moral ambiguity. In Sparks’ world, as in Tyler Perry’s (there’s actually a fair amount of overlap between the two), the bad guys are crazy-eyed lunatics who think nothing of beating up women and the good guys are gorgeous, pure and full of old-fashioned, All-American values.
Safe Haven is one of those annoying movies that tries to fake an air of mystery by delaying the release of information as long as possible. In this case, it’s that not only is our heroine not a murderer, but there’s no murder or dead body at all. Nope, our heroine isn’t being pursued by the law or by law enforcement, but rather by one maniac cop in particular, Detective Kevin Tierney (David Lyons, the Cape himself), the estranged husband of Hough’s character, a violent alcoholic who gets kicked off the force for being an evil alcoholic illegally stalking his wife and using his tools of his job to do so.
But also—he’s a werewolf! And Hough is actually a mummy! And Alex is secretly a Frankenstein’s Monster and the whole film is weird, meta, romantic drama riff on “The Monster Mash!”
Alas, Safe Haven is fucking bold and audacious enough to stick a fucking ghost (or possibly an angel, who gives a fuck?) into its cast of characters but unfortunately stopped there. It apparently did not want to go the full supernatural. That's a shame, because I think Smulders’ ghost girlfriend/sidekick/matchmaker would be a terrific addition to the Dark Universe line-up alongside the Bride of Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, Dracula Untold (whole different guy than the Dracula told dude), Van Helsing, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and disgraced boy band Svengali Lou Pearlman.
So, anywho, Erin moves down to one of those idyllic seaside towns found only in the books and movies of Nicholas Sparks, full of hard-working, patriotic, God-fearing Americans, not the human garbage you find on either coast, and gets a job at a waitress and begins to fall in love with hunky widower Alex.
Around this time, Erin starts going on walks with a mysterious figure played by Cobie Smulders who pops up every twenty minutes or so for a brief while to give Erin good advice and push her unmistakably into a relationship with Alex, an impossibly perfect fantasy figure with a gratingly precocious daughter and a moody son.
I went into Safe Haven knowing that Smulders played a ghost. Heck, that’s pretty much the only reason that I was at curious about it all. Nicholas Sparks? Hard pass. Nicholas Sparks and a motherfucking ghost? Now you’ve got my interest.
Knowing that Smulders’ character is a ghost makes everything she says positively drip with historical irony of the most unintentionally hilarious variety. For starters, the character could be cut entirely without losing anything of value. She only shows up to provide advice, counsel and solace for a few minutes and reappears only when it’s narratively convenient for her to do so. She has no inner life or agency of her own. As far we can see, Hough’s protagonist hasn’t asked her a single goddamn question about her life. That’s how uncurious she is about the lives of others, even a mystery friend who’s more like an angel because, well, she is a fucking angel!
Now at the risk of ripping off American satirist Jeff Foxworthy, I’ve mapped out some ways to determine whether or not you’re a ghost in a movie like this.
*If you’re third billed in a movie and only talk to one character…You might be a ghost
* If your sole purpose in a story is to help the protagonists and you have no agency or inner life of your own…You might be a ghost.
* If, over the course of two hours we learn absolutely nothing about you, and you don’t seem to exist at all in the material world…You might be a ghost.
So yeah, Smulders is a ghost. A g-g-ghost! But not your usual, haunted house ghost. She’s less a terrifying specter from the unknown than a solid anchor to any #girlsquad. You know, the kind of great friend that’s at your apartment with a bottle of wine and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s before you can even press “send” on a text all about your asshole boyfriend dumped you.
Safe Haven has some very very valuable, very useful messages for women looking to escape abusive partners. Its plot really drives home how important it is to open yourself up to accepting advice and support from a ghost in a time of crisis, even if you don’t actually know they’re a ghost when they’re comforting you. She'd be all, "Girl, I may be dead but even I know he was wrong for you!"
A lot of women fleeing abusive relationships would be too scared to follow a ghost’s advice, no matter how tender or sincerely offered. They’d be spooked! They’d see a ghost and run away screaming! But Safe Haven illustrates, through the medium of film, that there’s no shame in having a ghost sidekick encouraging you to pursue that hunky shop-owner without ever revealing that he’s actually her husband, or at least was before Cancer took her life and put her in the somewhat awkward position of being her husband’s posthumous matchmaker.
A lot of ghosts would be too insecure and territorial to encourage a woman to get their fuck on with the man still mourning their tragic early death, to lovingly lead him into the Fuck Zone so that they can give each other pleasure the likes of which neither even imagined possible. They would shy away from gently encouraging a soul-satisfying fuck-fest between the love of their life and a hot young blonde with a body that won’t quit, and who, as a special bonus, will replace her in the lives of her children as their new, non-dead mother, in addition to satisfying hubby’s every sexual whim, no matter how depraved. Sorry, in the last three days I’ve seen Safe Haven, 50 Shades of Grey and 50 Shades Freed and these awful, awful, painfully white movies keep bleeding together into one giant beige blur of boredom.
Christian Grey and Alex are opposites in many ways. Alex is small-town decency personified, a man so pure and devoted that it takes death to get him to even consider looking at a woman other than his beloved wife/the mother of his children. Christian is the ultimate glowering big-city mogul, all power and control and domination.
Yet Safe Haven and the 50 Shades movies share glacial pacing, roots in a romance novel phenomenon/industry, shameless lifestyle porn (though Safe Haven offers a nostalgic/condescending fetishization of small-town coziness and Norman Rockwellesque folksiness as opposed to the worship of wealth and privilege at the core of the 50 Shades movies) and laughably handled thriller elements involving a cartoonishly dark figure from the female lead’s past who reappears, intent on destroying her happiness and future.
I liked Safe Haven better than 50 Shades of Grey, if only because it lives up to its reputation for craziness. The movie really does get more and more bonkers until that glorious, idiotic final reveal launches it into the pantheon of contemporary camp classics. True, the “classic” part of that probably belongs in ironic quotation marks, but when a terrible, terrible movie is as distinctively and entertaining awful as this one is, who cares?
Wanna here me and Clint crack wise about Safe Haven? Oh yes you do! Listen here!
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