Nicholas Sparks and company out-Sparks themselves in their latest Valentine’s-targeted romance, “Safe Haven,” a movie that passably ambles along in generic-melodrama mode before finally insulting audience intelligence one time too many. It’s the second Sparks adaptation for Lasse Hallstrom (“Dear John”), and it’s enough to make us ask whether the “Cider House Rules” director has gone completely schmaltz-blind, or is just churning out creatively detached work for hire. If you show up here looking to relive “The Notebook,” lower your expectations to “The Lucky One” instead.
Julianne Hough (“Rock of Ages”) plays Katie, introduced in a slightly confusing one-two opener as a desperate brunette fleeing an apparent suburban domestic dispute, then as a desperate blonde barely eluding the cops at a bus terminal. (Her jumping-off point is Boston — or an unconvincing facsimile, anyway.) When her bus makes a rest stop in a sleepy town on the North Carolina coast — you know, the kind of place that’s got to send out to the Greater Wilmington metroplex for house-paint orders — she impulsively decides to stay. She swaps her fugitive’s hoodie for waitress’s short-shorts, moves into a catalog-rustic cabin, and quickly catches the eye of hunky, widowed dad Alex (Josh Duhamel). Cue rain-drenched, clingy-wardrobe canoodling.
The idea that Katie is initially so guarded and Alex’s icebreaking skills so rusty is chick-flick boilerplate but also dramatically valid — they’re familiar obstacles to love that are pleasantly, attractively played. Visual references to some legacy items left by Alex’s dead wife are three-hankie stuff. But the movie kisses such a passing grade goodbye any time it shifts to Katie’s back story, as a sketchy detective (David Lyons, TV’s “Revolution”) tracks her using “police work” that unintentionally makes Joe Friday’s methodology seem like “CSI.” (We know we’re not supposed to like the guy because he’s sweaty and he’s got weird eyebrows.)
While Hallstrom and the actors slowly heat this nonsense to a boil, other, stronger possibilities go underexplored. Katie sorts through some of her baggage with a neighbor pal (Cobie Smulders, “How I Met Your Mother”) who’s mysteriously damaged in her own right — but where’s the scene with, say, the women chewing over the selfishness of adding more chaos to a beleaguered widower’s life? Would’ve been welcome.
Maybe Katie is just loco. Following a climax semi-imaginatively set against the town fireworks display, the story heaps on a final flourish so stunningly ludicrous, it makes us half-wonder if we’ve been investing in a lead character who’s crazy. It would be an alternative, at least, to just swallowing the saccharine hooey that “Safe Haven” palms off as a parting gift.