There are certain predictable elements to movies like “The Notebook,” “Dear John,” “Message in a Bottle,” based on Nicholas Sparks’ novels: death, danger and disaster, ultimately leading to romance, and punctuated by idyllic, seaside interludes, rainstorms, Spanish moss and a seasonal celebration.
As this story begins, a distraught young woman (Julianne Hough) flees from a violent suburban crime scene, cuts her long, brunette hair and bleaches it blonde before surreptitiously boarding a bus going south. Impulsively, she gets off in Southport, a sleepy, small community on the picturesque North Carolina coastline. Seeking a chance to bury her past, she introduces herself as Katie and gets a job as a waitress. Almost as soon as wary Katie rents a cabin that’s isolated in the woods, she’s befriended by a neighbor, Jo (Cobie Smulders), and catches the eye of the proprietor of the general store, Alex (Josh Duhamel). He’s a recent widower who is raising his sullen, sensitive, pre-teen son (Noah Lomax) and disarmingly spunky, eight year-old daughter (Mimi Kirkland). Problem is: back in Boston, there’s a crazed, vodka-swilling detective (David Lyons) who is determined to track Katie down.
Adapted by Dana Stevens and Gage Lansky, the Nicholas Sparks story combines elements from “Sleeping With the Enemy,” in which Julia Roberts fled from an abusive husband and tried to make a new life for herself in a different place, and “The Sixth Sense,” which delved into the supernatural. But director Lasse Hallstrom, who helmed “Dear John,” along with “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “My Life as a Dog,” “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat,” fails to elicit much suspense.
Perhaps the primary problem is the casting. Best known for her “Footloose” song-and-dance routines, perky Julianne Hough tries to evoke a young Meg Ryan, while Josh Duhamel (“Transformers”) oozes bland, even robotic sensitivity. And the supporting actors, except for enchanting Mimi Kirkland, are insipidly generic.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 1o, “Safe Haven” is a sappy, tear-stained 6, filled with the sentimental schmaltz that characterizes the appeal of this kind of chick-flick.