Ultimately hokey "Safe Haven" kept afloat by Hough and Duhamel's chemistry

Safe Haven (2013) 
115 min., rated PG-13.

A young woman runs away from her past and starts anew in a sleepy town, only to let her guard down when she falls in love. That sounds like it could be the plot summary of 1991's Julia Roberts-starring "Sleeping with the Enemy," but it's a gushing Harlequin romance first and a battered-woman thriller second. It is from a Nicholas Sparks paperback after all. As yet another post-"The Notebook" adaptation, "Safe Haven" is a decidedly marked improvement over last year's drippy, humdrum sapfest "The Lucky One." It's predictable, hardly subtle, sometimes nutty, and tacks on a cornball coda that doesn't work, but palpable chemistry, sustained rooting interest, and sufficient dramatic tension seize the bigger picture.

"Katie" (played by the adorable Julianne Hough) runs away from a dangerous situation in Boston, cuts and dyes her hair blonde, and hops on a bus. At a pit stop, she stays on and tries making a new life in the sleepy, sun-dappled coastal town of Southport, North Carolina. Within a few days, she lands a waitressing job and finds an old shack in the woods that could use some color, but remains jumpy and avoids getting close to anyone. But once she meets a little girl named Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) at the local market, Katie starts to warm up to the kind gestures of the father and store owner, Alex (Josh Duhamel), a stud muffin who lost his wife a few years ago to cancer. (Is there any other kind of perfect man?) Now, it's just him and his two kids, Lexie and Josh (Noah Lomax). Meanwhile, a police detective named Tierney (David Lyons) will stop at nothing until he finds Katie, but what did she do, if anything, and why does he care so much? Will love conquer all or will Alex throw out Katie like a bag of trash once the truth comes out?

Screenwriters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens don't really try to buck any cliché or reinvent the wheel in any way, which leaves director Lasse Hallstrom (who already worked with a Sparks novel in 2010's "Dear John") to make sure the material doesn't turn into bland mush. The thriller elements aren't terribly surprising, but they work surprisingly well with the love story. The progression of the romantic relationship also feels much more natural here than just existing to adhere to the conventional demands of the script. It would've been nice had their "date"an afternoon of canoeing which gets rained out and forces them to take shelter in a diner—just played itself out and didn't feel awkwardly truncated, dissolving about three times during Katie and Alex's conversation. Otherwise, these two complement one another.

The lead stars are both appealing and attractive together, creating a little heat even. Hough modestly conveys the emotions of a woman on the run who's ready to strip herself of past demons and ends up finding a man who actually treats her right. Duhamel is charming and even funny as the single, saintly widower who's doing the best he can raising his two kids after his wife is gone. (Notice, Alex never says his late wife's name.) The kids themselves come off like genuine kids, not the overly precocious moppets that only exist in movies; Kirkland is cute as a button and Lomax (from "Playing for Keeps") believably pushes Alex's buttons because he misses his mom. As the obsessive cop, Lyons is intentionally loathsome and scarily unpredictable, but the character is just another cardboard bad guy out of Screenwriting 101 whom you expect to find Katie and tie her to the train tracks. He's so subtle that he's constantly dripping with sweat and carrying around a water bottle full of vodka. Cobie Smulders, though friendly as a nosy neighbor named Jo who becomes a friend of Katie's, is oddly used here. She has nothing to work with, besides living to take walks, working as a sounding board for Katie ("Life is full of second chances," she says), and showing up as a harbinger in a dream sequence, and that's all that will be said about that.

Sparks' weepies must read better on the page as frivolous beach reads (this writer wouldn't know), but the screen adaptations don't exist in a vacuum. The template appears to be the same (star-crossed lovers in a postcard-pretty locale), some stories tragically killing off characters with diseases and laying on maudlin sentiment with a shovel, but while it's still unremarkable, "Safe Haven" doesn't make you want to gag. There is a death here, which is almost a prerequisite if you've ever seen at least three of the author's film treatments, but for once, it doesn't come out of nowhere when a certain character finally gets it. There's also a plot point, proving to be more important by the end, wherein Alex's late wife had left her kids cards for their future birthdays, graduations, and weddings. And then, just when the film has been going well enough, it comes undone from a needlessly hokey and nearly laughable discovery. Faithful to the source material or not, this key moment just feels clumsily handled like a last-minute plot twist worthy of a groan and a ruse on the audience, as if it was M. Night Shyamalan's way of revealing himself as the script's ghostwriter. If that's not enough, we're asked to question one character's own sanity and how the townspeople would view this person.

And yet…and yet…, until then, "Safe Haven" is a pleasant, emotionally involving romantic drama with darker undertones that, without sounding like faint praise, deserves a place in the upper queue of Sparks schmaltz (a few notches below "The Notebook" and somewhat neck and neck with "A Walk to Remember"). As Valentine's Day bait, it will earn plenty of swooning and fanfare for those knowing exactly what they're in for.

Grade: B -