One either sparks to Nicholas Sparks, finding his melodramatic love stories to sigh over, or one doesn’t.
Sparking to “Safe Haven,” the latest film based on one of the bestselling author’s swoony novels, requires a high tolerance for a mighty sappy love story and the ability not to see a mile ahead for the supposedly surprise plot points, though they’re as obvious as bright red buoy markers bobbing in the water.
None of which seems to have hurt the box office appeal of seven previous film adaptations of Sparks’s books, including “The Notebook,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “A Walk to Remember.” There’s a reason this movie is opening on Valentine’s Day.
“Safe Haven” begins with a young woman on the run in Boston. After chopping off her long brown locks and dying her hair a pale blond, Katie (Julianne Hough) jumps aboard a bus, just managing to evade a determined cop (David Lyons) who’s on her trail.
Katie gets off the bus in Southport, N.C., a sleepy seaside town, and decides to stay. She lands a job as a waitress and rents an isolated cabin in the woods, where her sleep is disturbed by flashbacks of her clutching a bloody knife and a male figure lying on the floor at her house back in Boston.
She initially rebuffs the advances of Alex (Josh Duhamel), a hunky local shopkeeper who’s a widower with two adorable young children. Katie, however, quickly warms to him after being encouraged by Jo (Cobie Smulders), an attractive, footloose neighbor who pops up periodically to offer preternaturally sage counsel.
The movie keeps cutting between Katie building her new life and romance and the cop back in Boston who’s trying to track her down. It soon becomes clear that his obsessive interest in her is more personal than professional, and he will stop at nothing, in between swigs of vodka, in hunting her down.
There’s nada in “Safe Haven” that will surprise anyone who has ever watched a few Lifetime movies, which it strongly resembles, both in the tedious level of its acting and its dialogue. The movie is competently made -- Lasse Hallstrom (“Salmon Fishing in Yemen”) directed, this inexplicably being his second foray into Sparks territory after 2010’s “Dear John” -- but seems woefully padded at a nearly 2-hour running time.
Hough, blond and perky, gives off a high school cheerleader vibe, that of a good girl trying too hard and lacking any sort of grit. Not to put to fine a point on it, she’s boring.
Duhamel comes off a little better, displaying an easygoing charm and physicality, but the role basically requires him to be a Bland Mr. Perfect in a t-shirt, which he does just fine.
The real star here is Southport, N.C., the scenic, 3,000-person beach town, and surrounding area where much of the film was shot. If you’re seeking a place to spend a relaxing and recreational vacation, this looks like it could fill the bill--provided that some psycho cop isn’t trying to hunt you down.