Safe Haven is routine Sparks — with a twist

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Safe Haven

Grade: C +

Director: Lasse Hallström

Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, Cobie Smulders and Mimi Kirkland

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min.

There are three essential elements to a Nicholas Sparks story: death, tears and North Carolina. “Safe Haven,” the eighth Sparks film adaptation but only the third filmed entirely in the Tar Heel state (following “A Walk to Remember” and “Nights in Rodanthe”), is set in the sleepy, real-life village of Southport, situated at the confluence of the Cape Fear River, Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean. We see depictions of open-air restaurants along the marsh, nights spent gigging for fish and a recreation of the town's renowned annual Fourth of July festival.

This idyllic setting is also the impromptu hideaway for “Katie” (Julianne Hough), the assumed name adopted by a perky blond on the run from flashbacks of a bloody knife and a prone victim, along with Kevin, an alcoholic Boston detective (David Lyons) giving dogged chase. Katie wants to lay low, so naturally she rents a remote, dilapidated shack that everyone knows about, which needs repairs that send Katie trodding into the middle of town every day in search of supplies.

No bother — Katie is immediately embraced by the natives, particularly Alex (Josh Duhamel), a 30-something widower and father who looks like, well, Josh Duhamel. Despite knowing little about Katie (like her true identity, for starters), the wanted poster with her face on it hanging in the local police station (this film isn’t very kind to the Southport PD) and the fact that she attracts all manner of mayhem to town, Alex decides Katie is the one to replace his recently deceased wife and raise his two moppets, including a daughter played by Raleigh native Mimi Kirkland.

In fairness, there's enough chemistry between Duhamel and Hough to carry this Hallmark Movie Channel refugee through its many banal patches. Director Lasse Hallström — helming his second Sparks adaptation (“Dear John”) — competently captures the beatific coastal tableaux, although his crosscuts to Kevin’s manic search back in faux-Boston are drab filler.

Still, while there's the proverbial death along the way, you nearly make it through without any tears … until a jaw-dropping, Shyamalan-ian denouement that's just as liable to prompt eye-rolling as it is to send sniffles echoing throughout the theater. Ultimately, the big beneficiary here is the Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce. The rest of “Safe Haven” plays it safe.