The movies based on the novels of Nicholas Sparks always emphasize the simple pleasures. A quiet locale, a leisurely stroll down the beach, a romance that doesn't begin in a bar and end in bed that same night.
Those simple pleasures are in the forefront of Safe Haven, another sweetly treacly tale from the "beach book" author who gave us The Notebook, Dear John, and The Last Song. There's another beach town — sleepy, bucolic Southport, N.C. — another pair of lovers, each with his (Josh Duhamel) or her (Julianne Hough) "big secrets." And as they court, the Nebraska native Sparks serves up more of the homey homilies he's picked up, studying the South.
The girl, Katie, is on the run from Boston and the locals, especially the handsome widowed shopkeeper Alex, take an interest and try to make her fresh start work out. But Katie's reading this helpfulness — he gives her an old bike to get to her job at the seafood joint — Yankee-wrong.
"If you're goin' to live South of the Mason-Dixon line, honey, people GIVE you stuff."
Katie learns to spear-fish flounder, to cope with critters in the shack she rents in the woods and to accept those unrequested gifts.
About the beach: "Take a lot of pictures. You'll only regret the ones you didn't take."
There's an overly-nosy/ overly friendly neighbor (Cobie Smulders) and a twinkly old uncle (Red West) to prod Alex into approaching the pretty new waitress in town.
And a couple of cute kids eyeball Katie, one hoping she'll replace her dead mom, the other fearing that same thing.
Director Lasse Hallstrom ("Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," "Chocolat") goes to some pains to hide each character's secrets. The Boston cop (David Lyons) obsessed with tracking down Katie uses more police work than common sense to find her, and we glimpse the late wife's attic office that Alex rarely visits.
Hallstrom and his screenwriters may be stuck with Sparks' formula, but they take advantage of the geography, the leads and a couple of homespun supporting players — Robin Mullins is a wonderfully folksy owner of the seaside seafood shack.
The offhandedly charming Duhamel is more seasoned and better at this sort of laid-back slow-burn love than the still-green Hough, who seems too young for somebody with this much baggage. She is never more than adequate. Keira Knightley was originally talked up for the part and that would have made a much more interesting couple.
Smulders ("How I Met Your Mother") is playing a plot device and nothing more.
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."
From "Message in a Bottle" to "Nights in Rodanthe," that's a formula that's made Sparks rich. But some of us want more from our big-screen romances, especially a film released on Valentine's Day.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Screenplayby Dana Stevens and Gage Lansky, based on the Nicholas Sparks novel. A Relativity release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13, for thematic material involving threatening behavior, violence, and sexuality. Running time: 115 minutes.
Critic's rating: **½
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