A new movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel washes up onto the multiplex shores about once a year. Each movie is as alike as the next one, but for Sparks fans, it is not an insult to say they tend to be familiar and formulaic.
"Familiar" is kind of the point. You don't order a Big Mac with the expectation that an enterprising cook in the back will be trying to improve the recipe for special sauce.
Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallstrm (who also helmed the Sparks adaptation Dear John), offers up a mix 'n' match of Sparks tropes, special sauce and cheese all present and accounted for.
Julianne Hough (Rock of Ages) is Katie, the designated outsider (see also Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe, Zac Efron in The Lucky One and Miley Cyrus in The Last Song) who blows into a scenic North Carolina coastal town, staying one step ahead of some serious trouble in Boston.
Determined to lay low, she rents a picturesque, rundown cabin and gets a job waitressing at a local restaurant.
Back in Boston, a sweaty, sinister police detective (David Lyons) is clearly the appointed Sparksian D-bag (Remember the ex-husband in The Lucky One? Like that) in hot pursuit of Katie.
Initially unwilling to drop her guard, Katie eventually yields to the friendship of a mysterious, solitary neighbour (Cobie Smulders) and eventually a friendship with benefits offered by handsome widower Alex (Josh Duhamel), a store owner bravely trying to go it alone with a couple of needy kids.
There's a reason this movie is being released on Valentine's Day. The middle section of the film is devoted to the uneasy courtship between Katie and Alex, complete with a romantic rainstorm (see Nights in Rodanthe, The Notebook, etc.), a couple of tear-jerking personal details (Alex still maintains his dead wife's office upstairs from the store).
Hough doesn't make much of an impression, and Duhamel manfully attempts to add shades of character to a romance novel heartthrob, with little success.
See, it's very sentimental stuff and Sparks fans will doubtless gobble it up like chocolate truffles from a heart-shaped box. For non-fans, take heart. After alternately wincing at the screen and scrutinizing your watch, you may find the movie's third act does yield an unexpected moment.
In any other movie, it might elicit a raised eyebrow. In a Nicholas Sparks story, it shines like a gold nugget in North Carolina beach flotsam.
Excerpts of select reviews of Safe Haven:
It's a movie for people who nod their heads at the revelation that life is full of second chances. There's tragedy and heartbreak, in the past and possibly in the future, and a story that involves no heavy lifting -- few surprises, and so safe that there's nothing that anybody would consider edgy.
-- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
It goes without saying that Safe Haven is the whitest thing offered up for public consumption in the three days since Mumford & Sons won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
-- Chris Cabin, Slant
While none of the elements of this Valentine's Day-release chick-flick are remarkable in themselves, in the gifted hands of director Lasse Hallstrm, there is definitely magic at work.
-- Louise Keller, Urban Cinefile
Starring Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel
Globe, McGillivray, McGillivray VIP, Polo Park, St. Vital
2 out of five stars